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Jay Squires

Open Mic Summer 2018

Story by Portia Choi

Photographs by Martin Chang and Joshua Burgos

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Poets and musicians shared their words and songs throughout the summer at Dagny’s Coffee for the First Friday Open Open Mic.

Kevin Shah hosted the Open Mic on July 6th (2018.)  He is a poet and had previously hosted poetry open mic at the local bookstores, Russo’s Books and Barnes & Noble.  He also, with other community poets, organized several annual poetry events.  In April every year, National Poetry Month is celebrated throughout the land (including, of course, the City of Bakersfield and all of Kern County!)

About hosting in July, Shah said, “Whenever I guest-host, I am impressed with the energy that artists of all types bring to Dagnys. I got a host again during the summer. I estimate that 20 or so musicians, storytellers, and poets performed.

“One of the poets who only speaks in rhyming couplets interpreted his serious health challenges in a way that was not just human but divine. A couple of friends and I were talked with him afterwards. His poems and his vulnerability were sobering reminders of my own mortality.

“Yes, at that nice, poetry is serious business, but it can also be fun and whimsical too. I love the fact that the performers have to compete with all of the noises of a busy coffee shop on the busiest night of Bakersfield’s Art Walk. As an artist, you are forced to refine your craft.

“When I host, I’m performing, too. After twelve years of this, It’s not unusual for people to tell me that I’m good at it. Yet, I’m always the weakest link. And that should tell you how eclectic and exciting each Open Mic is at Dagnys. If you want to know more about the artists or their poems, keep reading.”

Jay Squires, appeared at all the summer open mics.  He recited a poem “I Am the Skimmer of Stones,” which he considers his best poem.  Squires said about the poem, “It was kind of a travel up and down the abstraction ladder, beginning with the actually physical act of skimming stones. Then I looked at the skimming process from the standpoint of ‘depth’ and ‘surface’ with the obvious intention of skimming the stone all the way across the pond, but knowing that not all stones will follow that trajectory. Some will lose their momentum half-way across. I remember, at the time thinking … what would the stone be ‘thinking.’ Anthropomorphism took place in my mind to the point I felt quite uncomfortable with the thought of sinking to the bottom of the deepest part of Jacob’s pond. Finally, doing a little metaphor-jumping, I considered depth and superficiality in terms of knowledge and tied in the previous ‘fear of depths’ to knowledge as well, and ‘age’ with the decision to search the surface of things.”

Here is his poem:

I Am the Skimmer of Stones 

by Jay Squires

I Am the Skimmer of Stones

and I fancy myself as well

the smooth stones skimmed

(imagination lets me, you see);

I, too, am the surface of Jacob’s Pond

they skim across

or not entirely across

or not across at all.

But if the stone falls short

I do not become the pond’s depth;

oh, most assuredly not the pond’s depth

(even imagination won’t take me there)

 

though years and years ago it would and did.

 

To be a skimmer of stones

I first must find the perfect stone;

for I am not a pitcher of balls

to be given the full game’s span

to peak the perfection of my throw

no. I allow myself but one—

one toss to test my form and faith

my existential curriculum.

It must be smooth and flat, of course

but not too flat and light that at first skip

 

my leading edge will lift me up to glide too high

then fall before my enthusiasm’s spent.

The perfect stone will fit the half-mooned slot

between crook’d forefinger and thumb

as snug there and seamless as a duck’s webbed foot.

The wrist knows when the stone is right;

from the body’s deeper knowing, I listen

and watch my wrist test the heft.

 

And, when the time is right

I measure the span from lapping water’s edge

to the far concave that curves its arms toward me

while it holds within its caress

the surface of its length and breadth

I’ll soon lay the spinning stone upon.

 

The stone and I have learned to admire

the stateliness of skimming the surface of things,

whirring past the center’s downward pull,

the perpendicularity of the mystery below.

 

They say at the center the pond’s immeasurably deep

that the depth of the pond’s mysteriously deep;

they say, and I say I must agree

that sometimes a mystery’s best left to mystify.

 

But once I thought my courage deeper

than Jacob’s Pond could ever be.

So I became one with the stone I skimmed

that hummed and skimmed and skimmed again

but not entirely across.

 

And where it sank, there too I plunged

down from the surface of Jacob’s Pond

down with immortal youth and a lungful of air

down into the heavy-black-deepness of Jacob’s Pond.

 

That Jacob’s Pond went deeper forever

was not mine to know that day

for fear soon squeezed life from courage

and a blur of my spider’s legs and arms

sent me scrabbling up the bubbled web

 

to light and air and breath

and the safety of surfaces.

For, it’s a blessing now

to be once—and only once—young

And once to test the depths

once to dare to fail

and once to Succeed in Failing

and in failing, yet survive

with a greater knowing

that there’s a near infinity of learning

oh, a precious, near infinity of learning

from lightly skimming

from blithely skimming

the safer, monocular surface of things.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Ben LeJeune also performed at each of the summer open mic.  He is a musician and accompanied his song on the guitar.    The lyrics to his song:

 

“Someday You’ll Win”

by Ben Lejeune

 

I know why you said you couldn’t stay

I know why you had to turn and walk away

Your heart’s a broken record playing the same song over

Playing the same song over and over again

You’ve been down that path and you had a couple of laughs

Some days just start so they can end

But someday you’ll win

 

I’ve no doubt in my mind

It all works out in a matter of time

The smoke will clear and you will be just fine

 

Someday you’ll fight the odds with a worthy grin

And find the time while the world spins

To stop and dream about the time when we need you again

 

Someday you’ll win

 

I know why you still regret it all

I know why you let go and you let yourself fall

Your mind is simply checkered; sprinkled salt and pepper

You lie eye-to-eye and you play pretend

You’ve tested out those waters, drowning in your bothers

You can’t keep the tide below your chin

But someday you’ll win

 

I’ve no doubt in my mind

It all works out in a matter of time

The smoke will clear and you will be just fine

 

Someday you’ll fight the odds with a worthy grin

And find the time while the world spins

To stop and dream about the time when we need you again

 

Someday you’ll win.

 

LeJeune said, about the song, “I wrote this song for a friend on April 9, 2011. It was the first song I had written for someone. She was in the hospital after an attempt to take her own life. The lyrics came to me rather quickly. I felt like I knew exactly what I had to say to her. She had made an attempt to reach out to me, but I felt I was too busy to be bothered. Had I known the gravity of the situation, I like to think I would have acted differently. I felt guilty about my carelessness and felt almost like I owed her this song. To this day, she is one of my dearest friends and she’s happy and healthy.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Thomas Brill was another poet who performed at all the summer open mics.  When asked about how he felt about reciting at the events; he said, “When I read at open mic, I have to admit I’m a bit of a ham.  I love to perform, so reading my own work gives me a chance to both do a little performance and also to reveal little bits of myself, sometimes things I am not so proud of, oftentimes just random thoughts or ideas.  It’s nice to hear other people reading too, though, and the whole experience is interactive in a very community based way.”

A poem that Brill recited was “in between.” Brill said, “This poem was inspired by the idea that we are always looking for that bright flash of brilliance, by the seductive and glimmering surface of the waters that reflects the sunlight back and always catches our eye.  Or for something more solid like the bottom of the creek which has a foundation and feels like it is real and not just an elusive dream.”

“But real life is more ambiguous and mysterious, the way the waters in the middle of the river are, the things you can’t see and can’t capture are the ones that really count.  It’s a call to celebrate that ambiguity and uncertainty and change that surrounds and can drown us of we do not accept it.  Live there without regard for how your life might look to others.  Real living is something you can only do for yourself.”

 

in between

by Thomas Brill

 

on the surface

there is much to say,

the water reflects sunlight, moonlight,

looks pretty to the passerby

draws in and gives back

the beauty of whatever body it’s in,

a river, the ocean,

it is open, obvious, honest,

the first filter, interface between two worlds,

because it is so easily observed

it represents its country well,

there is much to say about the surface

 

and at the bottom

critical source of life

for all that enjoy its security

where everything lands and settles

it is dark, mysterious, even profound,

it is basic, elemental,

though not prone to violence,

it is the song that touches the soul

though few chords are played,

it can deceive and frighten the timid,

provide shelter for the mad and weary,

firm foundation for the solid soul

 

but

 

it is in the middle currents

where I run

do not think about me

you cannot see me

nor can you find me,

always rolling, moving stirring,

never keeping anything long,

no real mystery

no real beauty

nothing profound,

at least not to the average observer—

but step into my waters

and feel my cool current

swim round your naked flesh

I will not hurt you

do not fear me

I will surround you with

a thousand fingers, then be gone

yet still with you

I am the lingering doubt

you can’t loosen from your mind

the obscure hope that invisibly

drives your passion,

the tender touch

that gently guides you

to your destiny,

though you never knew it was there

I am the seething anger

exploding without permission

then tumbling into warm embrace

and fading again into something else new—

but here I am again!

no, you cannot quite grasp me—

do not even try,

just let me flow past,

I am the moment,

the movement

swirling, confused and

alive—

 

Reach not, then, for the stars

nor stay planted at the base—

the living is in between

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Ruth Handy recited a poem, “Spring from the Backroads.”  It is a compilation of haiku which was combine into one poem.  She said, “My poetry has come in spurts. I first began writing poetry around 1975 when I was in a highly stressful hospital job. These poems were rather angry.

In the 1990’s, I became interested in Japanese culture and read the Haiku poems of Basho. I wrote a number of Haiku poems at that time, and my interest in Haiku and nature continues to the present.  This current poem came after I retired from social work in March, 2018.”

 

SPRING FROM THE ROAD

by Ruth Handy

 

In golden spikey hillside mounds,

Blooming flannel bushes in season.

 

Red wing blackbirds appear

On every other Corc’ran wheat field fence post.

 

Lime green Jeffrey Pine pollen

Smothers all surfaces in the mountains.

 

Red Indian Paintbrush sprigs

Stand erect right by the side of the road.

 

The quail family crosses in front of me,

Tiny ones fly over.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Tanya Dixon, performed a rhythmic poem “I choose me.”  She said that the poem “was birthed out of an experience where I had to make a decision. As I wrote, the rhythm came suddenly providing a nice experience for me. The rhythm aided me in moving forward to make a decision to be in a better place.”

I choose me

By Tanya Dixon

© 2018 Tanya Dixon

 

Awake at 3 am

Soul in derision

For I made a decision

To allow you in

And again

As usual you proved who you were

Not worthy of my space

But I gave you grace

And chance

I took a final glance today

I come to this conclusion

I choose me

I choose my sanity

Your plots and plans are crazy

Are you not in love with you

For if you were, what you say and do

Would be pure through your words

And so I heard your dismay at my success

I felt your toxins

contaminating my world with your mess

So I Detox

I detox my engaging conversation

Making a conversion in my

Thought process

Dropping all distress

That doesn’t belong to me

So happily I say, “I choose me”

I choose my beauty

I choose my style

I choose my being

I choose my destiny

I choose to listen to Sarah Vaughn

Belt out her sagacious melodies in the morning

I choose to step out on the horizons of my life,

For my new day is dawning

I choose me

So I say farewell

To the unnecessary

To the bothersome

To the old script

And I grip today anew

Catching the beautiful view of what is to be

I now exhale, I now breathe

I choose me

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Carla Martin recites her poems, often, at the open mic.  During the summer, she performed her poem “Ode to Music and My Piano.”

In response to my question, “When did you start to play piano?” Martin said, “I can still remember when I first longed to play the piano. As a second grader, I heard a kid play Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” during a school assembly.  It knocked my socks off!  It was so beautiful, the way it rippled over the keys.  It was mournful, yet hopeful. . . . . I realized at that moment that music could express feelings that words couldn’t capture.  It could conjure up pictures in your mind, rouse you out of a funk, transport you to a blissful state.”

“And that is what music still does for me today.  And poetry.”

“When I read a poem, a really good poem, it does for me what music does.  It presents an emotion, a situation, a distilled essence of life, that I can take in and, in doing so, somehow gain a better sense of the world. Emily Dickinson gives me glimpses of God and Nature.  Walt Whitman gives me sweeping vistas of America.  Edgar Allen Poe presents murky mysteries of melancholy and madness.   Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelo capture the cadences of proud, self-realized African American women.  Dylan Thomas liltingly expresses angst and passion.  Pablo Neruda melodically elevates ordinary objects of life. . . . .”

 

Ode to Music and My Piano

by Carla Martin

I slip my fingers onto

the ivory and ebony keys.

They are cool and smooth

to the touch.

When pressed,

a sonorous sound

lifts into the sultry summer night

as fireflies flicker

under twilight trees

 

My eyes follow black patterns

dancing across the page.

My brain interprets

these hieroglyphs

into lilting melodies

and strident chords.

 

Music!

Mysterious essence

that describes

the abandoned companion’s pain

the conquering hero’s joy

the new mother’s love.

 

You waft into our ears

spiral up to our minds

pulling out memories

of Christmas Eves,

ocean waves,

and first kisses.

 

Under your sway

the lonely night

is filled,

the hardened heart

is softened,

wrong

is made right.

 

In your spell

the universe spins

and stars twinkle.

 

My feet press the pedals

that release vibrating strings.

Sound reverberates

through the dusk.

 

Fingers ache,

neck strains,

yet my soul is soothed

after playing music

on my piano.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Chloe Joseph recited her poem, “Backless Dress.”  She said, “An older version of this poem was published in The Chrysalis Reader after winning the Bailey Prize for Poetry in 2011.”

 

BACKLESS DRESS

by Chloe Joseph

 

I was seven when my mom told me,

as she cleaned collard greens in the kitchen sink,

that every time a woman sinned

a seed was planted in her ribs, right under her heart,

a mustard yellow thing, jutting angel-hair-thin vines

through blood and bone,

splintering tissue, right through that pillow-thick-membrane,

the aorta, four chambers, the heart.

 

I asked her, “What happens when the seed grows?”

She dropped the greens into the water,

snatched my little hand within her own and forced it

on her chest between the white straps,

the soft creases of her summer dress.

 

She was all brown skin and sweat

when she said, “That seed stays and it aches and it tangles you up.”

I felt the thump and rush of her heart through the palm of my hand,

but something in her eyes changed, clicked, then something in her chest,

like that seed was growing up and up,

drumming each of her ribs on its way.

Another click, the doorknob as my daddy walked

into the living room, click-click, the kitchen,

click-click, the thick heels of his shoes

working the tile that mom worked

hard to clean.

 

I saw his movements from the corner of my eye,

he was watching us as if nothing was wrong, my hand still on her damp skin.

I took a breath and pulled away from her meekly,

Ran my bare toes over cracks on the aged linoleum floor.

 

She turned her back on me then,

finished cleaning the collards for dinner.

My dad placed his hands on my mother’s waist, kissed her neck,

and she craned for his caress.

I watched the movement of her slick shoulder blades,

traced the canals of green and blue veins,

watched them intersect without warning,

with the subtlety of vines, vines, vines

running all over and under that skin,

her backless dress failing to hide all the hush-hush.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Thomas Brill featured at May 2018 Open Mic

Story by Portia Choi

Photos by Chris Nielsen

 

Thomas Brill was the featured poet at the May 2018 Open Mic at Dagny’s Coffee.  He has written about 1000 poems over the years.

Brill said “I first wrote poems in high school. Bad poems.  Song, lyrical poetry.  I was interested in creative writing, and some poems were published.

“It was during college years when I was really interested in poetry.  Another student, a poet and musician, wrote a lot.  We wrote together.

“Then there was a professor who was really encouraging.  He said my poems were ‘brilliant.’  My poems during college were bold, interesting, ‘dadaistic,’ silly and fun.  (In college,) I expressed my nutty, expressive self.  Writing was a refuge.  My eccentricities became more pronounced, like dancing out on tree limbs.  It was liberating and freeing.

“In later years, I wrote about my anxiety, strong emotions, especially negative emotions.”

Brill said “I grew up with seven siblings, so I was never alone.  So I do not like being alone.  But when I write poetry, I am comfortable being alone.

“I am a unconventional guy with the trappings of conventionality.  (Brill is an attorney in a large law firm.)  When you really write poetry and are baring your soul, that is not a conventional thing to do. Now (writing) is a necessity, to express myself.  It’s like food.  It’s like stretching.  Every morning.  Usually five days a week.”

Of the 1,000 poems that Brill has written, he considers 200 to 300 of them to be decent.

At the Open Mic, Brill recited his “decent” poems from the various phases, over the years, of his writing.  For the story for Kern Poetry website, Brill provided examples of poems from the various phases of his writing.

 

The first phase was as a college student.  Brill provided, by memory, the following two poems from those years:

“C”

By Thomas Brill

the letter c

is the only letter

I could love

because it is smooth

and so

delicious

 

 

the CIA                                                (a Haiku)

by Thomas Brill

Fidel Castro has

Charisma.  The CIA

Wants to wear his beard . . .

 

Brill’s second phase of poetry writing was during law school and the first few years practicing law.  He felt frantic living alone.  And he wrote a lot while drinking.

The poem, rebecca, is from the second phase and it was performed at the Open Mic.

 

rebecca

by Thomas Brill

 

this bitch called Rebecca called

snotty nosed female of the genre

and said oh boy was she pissed

and she doesn’t know how many

people dumped shit on me but i

didn’t have to do it to other people

and yelled like that at me and got

real mad and told me she had a

husband and three kids and a dog

and she didn’t know she was gonna

hafta stay til eight to get the research

done

 

I said oh yeah well it’s just part of

the job you persnickety bitch and she

stopped me and said what’s persnickety

and I said you know kind a like uppity

only when white people do it and she

said that’s stupid how can you even say

something so racist you fecund hound

and I said I don’t think you used fecund

right and she said I did too and I said

bitch

 

then there was this older lady like seventy

eight or something who blew her brains out

the same day but I don’t think it was cause

she heard us fighting on the telephone

 

 

The third phase of Brill’s writing was when he was in Napa, California.  There was a group of writers which he was a part of.  There were 200 people who got together and about 20 would read.  Brill said “This was when my writing became mature.  The nature of my writing changed, it was more creative.”

One of the poems from the third phase is Man Living Quiet Life in the 21st Century.

 

Man Living Quiet Life in the 21st Century

By Thomas Brill

 

It’s not that I go around crying with big

gooey tear drops in my eyes, oh no,

like a refreshing rain storm that would bring too much relief,

instead I’m parched dry like Bush-Gore debate,

feeding on e-mails that contain no e-motion,

reeling in fish hooks to which bits and bytes

have attached themselves leaving no room for the fish,

guesstimating my age and weight like the carnie

who’s always right—how does he know?

–I can’t even get my remote to work.

 

Another poem from the third phase was inspired by the death of Brill’s brother-in-law from a car accident.  Brill said, “the poem is about the juxtaposition of the very profound moment, like death, and the triviality of the way most lives are lived.  The way we live the biggest part of our lives.”  The poem is fill the hearse.

 

fill the hearse

by Thomas Brill

 

fill the hearse

with super unleaded,

not regular,

at least 89 octane

turn on the headlights,

day or night,

and drive slowly

down the grease stained highway,

while all the other cars

sputter and drool

carbon deposits

on the wheezing asphalt,

following slowly headlamps lit

dimly searching

for signs of life in

oncoming cars—

nothing there

 

then single file into

the park,

strewn with crumpled bags

and paper McDonald’s cartons

(no more Styrofoam,

because it doesn’t biodegrade,

he thought,

as they lowered her body

into the hole)

and Thunderbird bottles,

cigarette butts right there

where they’ve put her

 

a squirrel suspiciously fat

runs off,

crows perched on branches of

trees blooming

like a lover’s lips in Spring,

they lay her down

under one,

where in the Fall the

pink blossoms would

slowly wrinkle up

 

and drop onto the young

grass there

 

The fourth and current phase of poetry writing is since being back in Bakersfield in 2007.  Brill said, “my poetry is more reflective and deeper.  I see things more holistic.  The different parts making sence, seeing how everything fits together.”  The poem, Mere illusion, is from this period.

 

Mere illusion

By Thomas Brill

 

There is music

and there are lists.

The rest is mere illusion.

Oh, and there is the bed frame I

painted blue yesterday,

Not Picasso blue,

just the most basic blue

you can paint,

the blue not of sky and not

of Picasso, but of Home Depot,

which for me was challenge

enough,

patiently pretending I was done

already,

slow strokes covering every

crevice,

The first thing I ever painted.

There is no poetry

in painting a bed

Home Depot blue.

Oh, but there is poetry too.

 

Music, lists, the

blue bed frame

and poetry.

The rest is mere illusion.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

The May Open Mic was another evening of sharing of original poetic words.  The variety of subject and honesty and fun was ever present at the event.