A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
It was the summer of 1996. I’d just gotten the money from my discrimination settlement, so Heather and I celebrated by meeting in the great city of Chicago when her two week residency at Ragdale artist’s colony, about thirty miles north, was finishing up. We stayed at the old Ambassador East hotel in Chicago’s Gold Coast district. It was a much fancier place than the motel where we’d stayed a couple of months earlier.
That motel was near Harrisburg, PA, where we’d gone to attend a wedding. Heather had booked it from DC by phone, and when we got to Harrisburg, it wasn’t all that hard to find because it had an easily recognizable landmark right in front of it—a graveyard. When the motel owner took us to our room, he sprayed Lysol in the air before letting us enter. Looking out for our health and safety, he was killing germs and freshening up the place. We thanked him, then looked over to the bed, which sagged so deeply in the middle that if it could hold water it would make a decent sized kiddie pool.
While we were in Chicago we did a lot of the usual tourist things. First was the elevator ride to the top of the Hancock building and to the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor where we took big gulps of our mixed drinks, looked out of the floor to ceiling windows, then had to catch our breath because you can’t look out of a window that high without imagining that you’re about to fall. Well, anyone with any kind of imagination. We also went uptown to the Green Mill, which where the poetry slam first got big.
It was at a poetry slam in DC at the old 15 Minutes Club where Heather and I first crossed paths in January of 1994. I was onstage, drunk, reading poetry, having just gotten back to DC after leaving New York. Having failed at my practical ways of making money, I was now reduced to impractical ways, which was why I ventured to do a slam, the winner of which received thirty or forty tax-free dollars. It was here at the 15 Minutes Club where I got to know a good number of poets—Silvana Straw, Jeffrey McDaniel, Joel Dias-Porter, Kenny Carroll, Brian Gilmore, Andy Fenwick. Now, twenty years later, some of us are having a reunion reading at the Dance Place. Of course, a lot of things have happened between then and now.
A few years after Heather and I got together, I pretty much stopped writing. I’d quit drinking to an insane degree, quit smoking, worked a couple of straight, full-time jobs, and even, at various times, had an active membership at a gym. I was, in other words, being content, and trying to remain healthy—two things which, at the time, poetry did not help me achieve.
By the time Maggie was born in 2003, Heather wasn’t writing all that much either, but it was then that we decided we should get serious about writing again. We wanted to leave something for them other than fucking money, which was all gone by then anyway. Something with real substance but which can’t be so easily taken away or spent. Yeah, we wanted to leave a legacy of words from which they might draw whenever the need came around. Or whenever they needed inspiration.
Heather published her first book of poems, The Lost Tribe of Us–which won the Main Street Rag poetry prize–in 2007. That was when, after eight or nine years when I hardly did a thing, and after moving here to the Shenandoah Valley, I started writing every day again. I’ve probably written around four or five hundred poems and short essays since then. Somehow, after the crazy years of drinking and chain smoking, poetry became something that helped me survive. Maybe it was all along—it just that before Heather and then Maggie and Julien came along, survival kind of bored me. Because for a lot of us, when we were young, survival wasn’t the most compelling of subjects. Indeed, if it were a class in school, it’s the class I would have skipped the most, and then gone off to pursue other interests.
This photograph of Heather and me was taken by the man who waited on us at the Pump Room, the restaurant that was on the ground floor of the Ambassador East in Chicago. It was one of those fancy restaurants with pictures of celebrities lining the walls and entrees that cost something like thirty/forty dollars, which was way more than either of us had ever paid for a meal. Even though I’d just gotten that nice chunk of money from my legal settlement, we weren’t about to pay that much, so we made our visit to the Pump Room during breakfast for a much more moderately priced meal. From there, it was off to O’Hare for a flight back to DC. Then, in a couple of years, we got married, then had kids, then moved farther and farther away from the city.
The city was what I knew best. Whether it was DC, where I grew up, New York, where I lived for a number of years, or even a place like Chicago, which I only visited—a city was what I knew and what I understood. Now, after living outside of them for these years, I’m not so sure. And I’m not so sure that it’s a bad thing. But that’s a function of time. And sometimes, I think that the greatest function–and greatest benefit of time, along with aging–is to take one away from what one knows best.
As for illustration of time’s inescapable function of aging, I can look at this picture. One immediate but trivial thought that comes to mind is that we’re not quite as pretty as we were so many years ago. But then, as I’ve said before, Fuck Pretty. Because we’re fucking beautiful. Pretty is for kids—at least until they learn that pretty is mostly a load of bullshit. That pretty is OK if it happens, but it’s nothing worth pursuing. Of course, some kids never learn that, do they?
— Jose Padua