MIKE STUMBLES OUT on the porch like he thinks this might be a dream. He just woke up. His face skin is sunken and his eyes are beady and raw, like Richard Gere’s would be if he stared at the sun. He grabs a cigarette pack and shakes it. It doesn’t make a sound—fuck. Without saying anything, I take out my last cigarette. I pinch it in my lips and strike a match. I love matches, watching the flame pop, hearing the sizzle as the tobacco catches and the stale sulfur smell when I flick them out. Each is a one-time use commodity. Thin and temporary.
Tonight, as I watch the smoke lift in a thin stream like a contrail, there’s something about all of this that I find abjectly terrifying. I hand Mike the lit cigarette. He looks at me like ‘you sure?’ Three months of touring as a performance poet has perfected in me the ability to appear as if I am not concerned, in the slightest, about homelessness, poverty or cancer. Of course I’m sure.
It’s humid. My shirt suctions to my love handles. We’ve been friends for thirteen years but for some reason I fold my arms to cover my flab. I don’t ask him if he wants to hear my latest poem. But I desperately want to read it to him. I want to read it off the computer screen and listen to him say hm, mhm, and aha. I want to look up from the words every fifth line to catch him nodding his head. Poetry can do that. It can elicit involuntary bodily actions. It can make people want to see you naked despite your man boobs. It can get people with nice legs to buy you beer. It can make people weep as they congratulate you, unable to articulate why they’re being so “emo.” And when they say this, “sorry I’m being emo.” You can’t let it end there. You have to tell them, “You’re not being emo” or “it’s okay, be emo.” Saying this is what separates performance poets from rock stars and televangelists.
Mike will never listen to one of my poems and cry. I will never listen to one of his and cry. We’ve been doing this for a while. There’s a callousness that comes with that. Not that we’ve lost our hearts. We just have husks around them. When something is worthy of making it through, we let it in. We let it force us to see the world in color again. And then we say mm and mhm— the only indication that we’ve heard something so dope it’s made the lining of our stomachs perspire.
Mike drags his cigarette. He tells me he has an idea. He wants more poets to tour, to see things from the perspective of a poet on the road for the first time—my perspective. If more of us don’t get out there he’s worried the art form might begin to stagnate. He wants me to write a blog. I can call it How To Tour or Perform Poetry On A Shoestring or Making Money From Poetry, Kind Of, Not Really. It’ll give poets the tools they need to tour without breaking the bank. He tells me I’m perfect for it. Show them how to stay in the black.
He takes another drag off the cigarette and stamps it out prematurely. “Sound good?” he asks, “think you can show ‘em how it’s done?” I look at the half unsmoked cigarette in the ashtray, knowing I won’t be able to buy more for at least three days. When Mike leaves I will fish it out and save it for later.
“Hmph,” I say, “No problem.”
1. AIRFARE: $620.00
THREE HOURS on the plane and I remember why I don’t want babies. There are at least three of them onboard. Every eight minutes, one of them erupts. The sound is shrill and sustained. Sometimes one crying spell triggers another and it becomes like a contest to see who can hit the frequency that’ll crack the windows and vacuum out the cabin pressure. And it isn’t just the sound. It’s how when you hear a child cry, it reminds you of a fear you’ve learned to ignore—that you might never stop being hungry.
“I just fed him,” a mother says, bewildered.
“Fed him what?” answers a male voice. It’s a deep voice made deeper because it’s trying to be quiet. It has the timbre of someone yawning into a tuba.
“The apricot stuff,” mom says, “The stuff he likes.”
I haven’t seen it happen but somehow I know that she’s one of those mother’s that breastfeeds in public and will continue to do so until the child is eight years old. These people exist. I saw a YouTube video of an eleven-year-old boy suckling at his mother’s breast. It cuts to him on a swing set saying, “There’s nothing like it. Better than mango juice.” The boy tells his mom not to wear a bra, ever. So she doesn’t. When the day comes that I can watch this video and not want to loosen the bolts on this kid’s tire swing, I will consider becoming a father.
I sink into my chair and sniff at the in-flight magazine. It tells me about the fly fishing in Delaware, the dolphin watching in Florida. I haven’t had a cigarette in four hours. I want to tamper with the smoke alarm. I want to get caught but refuse to put out my cigarette. What’re they gonna do? I want to stand toe-to-toe with a flight attendant in the middle of the isle and take long slow drags and when the kids start crying I want to entertain them by blowing one smoke ring through another. Everyone will be appalled. It will be coarse and rude and uncalled for. But it’ll make the kids smile. It will feel like winning the lottery.
Had I won the lottery, I wouldn’t be here. I would have followed the cardinal rule of planning air travel: BUY YOUR TICKETS THREE MONTHS IN ADVANCE. Three months is a good rule of thumb. Do it and you’re sure you’re getting the best price. What’s more, you can be a bit choosey. You don’t have to take the dregs—the flights that bring you on endlessly circuitous byzantine adventures, routing you through cities that are out of your way because at the last minute that’s the only way to get it sorted. Also, it’s a little known fact that airfare costs depend not only on when and on what airline you’re flying but also to what specific airport. I saved almost a hundred dollars once by flying into Baltimore instead of DC even though they’re relatively closer together. When you buy tickets on line there will usually be an option to search for “nearby airports.” Select this option and you may get lucky. Eventually you’ll develop a knack for knowing where the best deals are.
By the end of my tour I will have flown from San Jose, CA to West Palm Beach, FL, to Worcester, MA to Orlando, FL back to Worcester, then to DC, then to Vancouver, BC. This is all highly unorthodox. Usually, people stick to a few states at a time, and go by car. At the risk of stating the patently obvious, you have to consider how much you’ll be making at each gig and then weigh whether or not it’s worth it to travel there. If you’re just starting out and the venue doesn’t really know you, you can expect at least $50.00 for a slam feature (though it’s often more). It’s fun to feature at open mics too but often they can only afford to pass the hat and let you sell your merchandise. You might only make $25 bucks for that performance. Some venues offer around $100.00. Sometimes more. It depends. Everyone’s different. The name of the game is COMMUNICATION. Get a straight answer from everywhere you’re featuring as to how much they’re paying you and how they’re handling merchandise sales. If they ask you to make them an offer don’t be afraid to tell them how much you’ll need to make sure you don’t loose money. Remember, your art and your time are precious. Don’t sell yourself short. No matter what they’re paying, ALWAYS HAVE MERCH (I’ll discuss this in detail in another entry).
If you’re like me however, you might decide to take a loss on travel expenses if it means putting yourself out there and developing a good rapport with the different enclaves of the spoken word community. Don’t forget about the long-view. It might be worth it to loose money on a gig, if that gig goes really well and if you make friends and fans for life.
If you’re like me, you will buy your roundtrip plane ticket from Worcester to Orlando three days before you have to leave. It will cost you $250.00. You will realize that you are doing three shows and will make about $100.00. You will click, “purchase” and watch $150.00 wink out into oblivion and the next time you hear a child cry you will be unsettled by the notion of an insatiable hunger. But at least the shows will be fun and next time… you’ll plan ahead*.
*By the end of my tour, when all my other expenses were said and done, I didn’t make back my money. The main culprit was the $620 dollar slug that was dealt to my gut for airfare—by far my highest expense. Had I either planned more shows or went to venues that were closer together, I would definitely have at least broken even.
2. CHAPBOOKS: $110.00
AN HOUR IN FRONT of the copier so far, warm toner-scented air venting from its gills, and I keep making accidental eye-contact with the homeless man across the room. It’s somehow obvious that his brown t-shirt was once yellow. He claws at a keyboard, long hair floating just above the table. He looks the way Christ would look if you dragged him through a sewer then had him check his email. We’re separated by a windowed partition. The glare on the glass gives him a halo when I look at a certain angle. I can’t help feeling like we have something in common, something other than being the only unemployed people in this Kinko’s at three am.
I’m here to make chapbooks for the rest of the tour (1) (2). Tour. I like the sound of it. I like mentioning it off-handedly to people—sorry, can’t make it. I have to feature in Vancouver that week—like it’s a job (3).
This is because there’s a part of me that still wants to be a rock star. This part of me is a mulchy layer resting under the skin but above the flotsam and the gray matter and the old hurt. It wants everything I wanted when I was thirteen.
Tonight, I’m in Salt Lake City. I have a full three hours before my feature starts. Still, I’m nervous. I imagine scenarios that will prevent me from making it—broken copiers, elusive printer drivers, icy streets, locusts in traffic. As always, I want to impress them. Not just the audience, but the host, the organizers, and the inner circle of regulars. I want to walk in like I have a noble purpose and a ruthless plan.
I want to answer probing questions with seven words and a smirk. I am tired of how people expect poets to be disorganized, fragmented, vomitous, reticent, obsequious, yet brilliant and superficially rude.
I select the by-pass tray (4) on the keypad. Some unseen force sucks one of my blank cover sheets from the tray and into the copier’s byzantine guts. A kind of symphony rises from it: the whir of a hundred tiny motors, billions of microscopic fibers rubbing against each other in all that warm machine dark. I listen to the spinning belts squeaking in like mice talking in their sleep. I make eye-contact again with the homeless man. I start writing a poem about him in my head. I ask myself, “what does he mean?”
I make up a story. I like to think that he came a long way to be in Salt Lake, like it’s destiny, oceans of time floating him to this exact place. Antwerp. He’s from Antwerp. I decide this and feel obnoxious and dirty, like I am coated in this invisible film.
Then I realize I ran fifty copies with a type-o. I could let it go, sell the books anyway. But “hole” is not “whole” and everyone knows it and I will look like an idiot to anyone who reads it and I wish someone would just burn every page and drive a railroad spike through my brain (5).
It was easier when I used to steal them (6). I could probably devise a way to steal them now. But it would feel weird—like a conceit that I can’t make being a poet work legitimately. I correct the type-o and run the books again (7).
Back home I fold and staple (8). The tedium doesn’t bother me. I enjoy the minor surgery each book requires. The paper is warm and crisp and I like knowing that I am doing the work a machine ought to; touching each one, personally seeing it through its completion. This is a different kind of hypnosis from the one you experience in front of a copier. It’s not staring passed the walls. It’s staring into your own moving hands. It is a quiet shuffling rhythm. The commitment to process that writing poetry requires has made me good at this sort of thing. There is a moment here where a card stock cover shakes in my hand, playing a wobbly atonal minuet, and I am happy in an uncomplicated way.
I ride to the venue with the books in my lap. They are chintzy in a valiant way. The only reason to take them seriously, if any, comes from their contents alone. Each one is a chance for merit to win out over glamour. They are everything rock stardom is not.
I like my chapbooks most when I fantasize about my own sudden epic death, like you do. If I died tomorrow, I would not leave behind money, a car, flatware, a jacket with lining, children, memorabilia, a legacy, a pet, a house, or anything old and engraved.
I would leave debt—a non-thing—a void—a yawning negative slab of minus. It’s not that my chapbook says, “look at me, I was here.” It says, “look at this.” Someone made it and it says something you should hear, something you can’t hear anywhere else (9).
The venue is an earthy café, one of Salt Lake’s growing bohemian enclaves. Everyone that comes to the show has less money than I do. They are also one of the happiest audiences I’ve ever performed for. Some of them smell bad but better than the Zest fully clean Mormon couple that tried to convert me earlier that day. I smell bad too. This breaks the ice and a way that is pre-conscious achingly pure. I know that tonight will end with me giving chapbooks away for free (10). It is one of the best shows I have ever, ever given.
NOTES TO TOURING POETS
(1) Always make two versions of chapbook: a large and a small. The large should contain the poems that you’re most excited about at the time and should include at least some of the work that you’re going to perform. The small book is key. It contains between 2 and 4 poems. If you have to make a choice between pretty expensive covers for the small book or the large book, put them on the small book. They sell. Trust me. Having both books helps you avoid undercutting the price of your large book. Keep your large book price in the ten dollar neighborhood and your small book in the two dollar neighborhood.
(2) If your on a budget, don’t make all you chapbooks at once at the outset of the tour. Make enough for the first few shows, then see how things go. Have a system that allows you to print and assemble them quickly (i.e. have a master copy and a book stapler on you.)
(3) I don’t know of any way of being a successful touring poet while still holding down a day job. Everyone I know that makes it work considers it his or her job. While it might not be your job forever, it is important to approach your art with a certain professionalism. Think of it as your occupation—the thing you do. When someone on the road asks you what you “really” do, tell them you’re a poet and offer no other explanation.
(4) It is important to use cardstock covers for your chapbooks. Even if everything else is a shitty lame-ass Kinkos copy, at least there’s the feel of a real cover. This is just as easy as making regular copies. Most copiers have a by-pass tray. Put your cardstock in that tray, select “by-pass” on the copier controls, then make your copies.
(5) Never ever allow a type-o to remain in anything you put out for people to read. People will see it and loose confidence in your writing. It doesn’t matter if you’re never going to see them again. That cheap-ass book is how they will remember you. Besides, you’re a poet. You should care more than anyone about your words being correct.
(6) I am not a fan of theft per se. That being said, if you have the opportunity to liberate printing resources from Kinko’s in the service of making a chapbook, do it. If have any lingering qualms about stealing from a major corporation for the sake of your art, watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9uh7wQ_iIs
(7) Always print a test run and examine it carefully for type-os. Most people better at proofreading on actual paper than they are on the computer screen.
(8) Print your copies so they come out collated. This makes the assembly process nine hundred times easier.
(9) Before you decide to go on tour, you have to be confident that your writing has something new to offer. I don’t mean that you should convince yourself that your voice is original. Rather, be honest with yourself. If you’re not doing something that is, in some way, different from what’s out there, then sit down and write something that is. Don’t be different for the sake of being different. Be unique in the way that a good poet is always unique even if their work is made of reused parts.
(10) Don’t give chapbooks away for free too easily and don’t be too stingy. Remember, this is your job. Respect the fact that your book is worth something. People will see that and respect it too. At the same time, if you can see that someone really liked your work and they really don’t have any money, give it to them. Don’t just give it to them. Have a conversation with them. Write them a personal note on the inside of the book. Print neatly. Look them in the eye when you hand it to them. Without gushing or being obsequious, tell them you’re glad they came to see you. Congratulations, you just made a fan.
FYI, there are more entries to come. Below is a list of what I plan to cover. Each will be it's own chapter. I'm going to try to keep them all in this one posting so that they're not scattered all over the blog. Will include an entry at the the top of the blog to let you know when I've posted a new chapter.
CHAPTERS TO COME:
--GROUND TRANSPORT: $195.00
--DINNING OUT: $45.00