Sunday, August 18, 2013

Roots of Rhythm

In college, I was part of a performance poetry troupe.

I’ve shared this bit of information any number of times when I needed a quirky fact for a get-to-know-you game, or I wanted to surprise someone whom I knows me as straight-laced, in the button-down shirt, tie, and slacks I wear to work each day.

Some folks have no idea what the compound term “performance poetry” might mean. Others immediately picture me, bearded, sitting full lotus in a field, alternating between meditation, humming, and writing in free verse.

While this image isn’t spot-on, neither is it entirely off point.

I’ve wanted to be a writer from childhood on, but it wasn’t until college that my writing took on a sense of currency, and that I started to enjoy near-immediate gratification. I started reading my work--mostly poetry, some short prose--at open mic nights at the café in the College Union. Later, I frequented the Saturday night open mics at The Bank Street Café. I found I could read work and get instant feedback. Better yet for my fledgling ego, I could get people to clap, chant or sing along. I could get people to cite specific lines that they liked after the show. I could feel cool. Respected. Even get the occasional attention of a young woman in the audience.

Inner Rhythms organized most of these open mics. The group was an unofficial entity at the college--unfunded and unrecognized by student government, most often meeting at locations off campus. They put on shows once a semester, featuring poetry, but more often than not poetry staged in unconventional ways--via multiple speakers, with the poet in the crowd, with extensive use of props, occasionally with singing and dancing.

It was Bohemian. A little out there.

I was hooked.

I joined Inner Rhythms the spring of my sophomore year. In many ways, I grew up as a writer with the group. I stopped writing love poems in favor of poetry that might evoke or be informed by love, but that harkened to the roots of my emotional being, or explored the intersection of my mixed race background and the way I interact with people, lovers or otherwise.

We had lock-ins. Weekend long events in which we wrote and made music and talked and wrote some more, in each other’s presence and awake for the better part of 48 hours.

And we had potluck dinners. At a time when I was even less adept at cooking than I am today and had access to little more than the dorm microwave with which to prepare food, I was certainly more of a taker than a giver in those situations.

The food was always secondary, though. We got together Sunday nights, talked, ate, and workshopped new writings. I never felt that I quite fit in with the culture of the group--not free-spirited enough, not a chef, nor a practitioner of yoga. At my best moments with the group, however, I felt a sense of family and community, inescapable when you fall into rituals and routines with a group of people. And for the ten or so of us who assembled on a weekly basis, I can’t help thinking that that, more than being artsy and more so than even the writing itself, drew us together and kept us a unit for what time we had together.

After one of these dinners, one of the guys strummed his guitar while another played his violin. Others sang in imperfect harmonies. I sat on the floor, back to the sofa, empty plate of food before me. Caught in the music, I beat my open palm against the coffee table. Once. Twice. I found a rhythm. And before long, there we all were, making music together. Something more than what was inside me. The gestalt of what came from within us. Inner rhythms, in their purest form.

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