I was asked to contribute to Write Club Atlanta's book capturing the best of the first four years of Write Club. I was honored and said yes, though considering that I was undefeated they better have asked me! Here's my contribution... exclusive for MoMolina...
By Mike Molina
“When the meteor comes, I’ll be riding it like the mechanical bull in your heart. When the big bang sang, I applauded it. And I’ll be there when light goes dark. You won’t outlast the roaches and I will smash the last one. I built the pyramids and sunk Atlantis. I hung the moon and flung the sun. I am your god. You created me to calibrate your insignificance. I am Math.”
The square of the stage never seems so small as the moment you step off it to return to the crowd at a poetry slam. The hot, lonely distance in being the center of attention is reduced to a dim simmer in those brief moments of descent. The tangy pang of peach light, like a protracted camera flash, reappears to coat your shoes as you grope for space among the maze of feet leading back to your seat. The bluff applause seems polite or trite or contrite enough to be a bluff.
But during the break from the show, the truth will out. Some poets robotically encourage each other as if the math of karma were the only language that really matter at a slam. Some poets stay to themselves, reeking of infirm confidence or flush with fatigued competitiveness. Others walk awkwardly through the crowd hungry for the feedback lost in slapped hands, wanting more than the quick fizz of feeling in the hot air popped between clapped hands, need more after they have slammed their words, like dominoes, for points. They… we stumble the crowd mumbling sincere questions.
“What did you think of the piece,” I asked, daring a sister poet to tell the truth, confident she would offer nothing but a dusting of praise, sprinkled like powdered sugar on my puffed up, hollow, beignet of an ego.
“It didn’t suck,” she said.
The words clicked around my head like the cowrie shells she had threaded through her carefully coiffed dreadlocks.
“It didn’t suck.”
Well I guess that’s good news coming from a spoken-word poet with dreads raining cowrie shells, and big copper bangles imprinting themselves on her wrists and giant polished stone beads jiggling between her breasts. Coming from one of the in-crowd of culture iconoclasts, draped in generic African patterns wrapped around her dark, authentic African skin which made her detailed white teeth all the more white as she sucked them together to say “suck” as in “it didn’t suck.”
Coming from one of Atlanta’s jaggiest gatekeepers of Black cool, one of the bohemian bourgeoisie, I guess I should take it as a compliment. But as a compliment, it echoed and curdled in the distance fog I quickly shushed around her like a burst of stage smoke. I could hear her true thoughts as clear as the vodka I choked her words down with.
‘You light-skinned, green-eyed pretty boy… you been given your whole life and now you headlining? You ain’t paid no dues.’ I can hear her shading me to sharpen the distance between us and I accept that. We aren’t the same.
She needs her blacker than, downer than, realer than linear gradations. She needs to shrink others’ pain so she can carry her own. She needs her anger at a world that privileges my skin and my balls and peddles my degree as proof of an American dream she woke up from in a cold sweat long ago. She needs to hate me and the cock I swung in on like I forgot how hard it is to see another poet shine. She needs her opinion, lounging in her midnight fears, lazing in the hammock of her resignation, tied between trees of insecurities, rooted in the muck of her mire, stuck in the sands of her time, in the glass hours where she preserves her fermented torment for the cold nights when only hate will heat her heart.
She needs all the courage she can muster even if it it’s only applied to dull the luster of my shine. She needs this moment and so I let her have it.
“Thanks for your opinion.” And I walked away without looking back to catch her reaction, though in my mind her forehead crinkled under the cold blowback. I walked towards a nice white man whose eyes said speak with me.
“Tight, tight,” he said sounding like the quick swinging hammers of a typewriter – “tight, tight.” You white John Henry working your self to death to be cool. You big bearded fool in a Paul Bunyon shirt who came to tell me two twin words about my work. “Tight, tight.”
Tight? Was it “tight” how I merged mythic and scientific imagery to create a voice of penultimate universality? Tight? Or was it “tight” how I rooted the existential meaning of the piece in the meter of the rhythm and rhyme, i.e. it ain’t about the chicken or the egg, it is about the math that added one to the other, it’s about that beat that beats the egg into life or food for life. Tight?
Why did you feel like you had to slang your way through our difference like some boy in the hood from the burbs who loves Tupac and WuTang and knows what poontang and a badonkadonk are? Did you feel the need to knead words into decade old baguettes of loafing, lazy, hip-hop cliché in order to communicate?
That you talked to me was enough, bro. That you spent time and shared energy with me was enough. Then you ruined it by slinging slang at me like a not quite trained monkey in the cage that keeps you safe from white supremacy. You want to be down, Mr. Charlie? Then shake my hand and tell me what was “tight” about a fucking good poem that is layered and challenging and accessible and simple in the way symmetry is fucking simply beautiful. Tight?
Keep your cliché, I thought and walked away.
I thought my way back to my car before the second half of the slam, done with this distant cloud over the city that makes shaded dreams of its stars and blocks the light from its seedlings—the shallow sky they sell in the rectangles between the mirrored, high rise glass of condos. The shallow words (It didn’t suck) they throw on the hot coals of potential to steam the envy off their soft skins. The shallow water they wade in (tight, tight) so as not to lose their way in case they want to turn back to the big house. The shallow end of the praise pool they divide in tenths and slam under the big tent of competition. Keep your points, your opinions, your estimation of the worth and the value and quality of my work. “It didn’t suck,” means nothing but that it didn’t suck donkey balls, which means it probably did suck like squirrel balls or something. “Tight, tight,” means nothing at all.
I talked to my windshield about Atlanta… and New Orleans and Oakland and New Haven and Brooklyn and all the places I haven’t found acknowledgement of the value of my work. I freestyle laps about my dad’s lap and how I don’t remember how it felt to sit in his approval, and how I punished him at my graduation and how he died after I apologized, and how he must not have seen my potential to leave me to the hours I spent alone finding my way and how he must not have understood my talent since he didn’t invest in it and how he must not have believed in me since he didn’t take time to find out what I believed about myself. That I wasn’t good enough to keep him home, that our family was not worth not giving up on…
And I find myself in the parking lot of a tavern balling out the pain in the marrow in the hollows of my bones. The sickening drone of my snorting sniffles unravels the riddle of my rash reactions to these brief, passing interactions with strangers. The shallow breath of anger reminds me. I’m still mad at my daddy for not teaching me how to swim… for leaving me like this, like where I could drown in a few inches of water, in some random person’s wet breath, in the shallow water that might as well be the Aegean Sea in this odyssey of me.
For we who wade in the puddles the past leaves, in the muddle of now, befuddled about how we came to be stuck in sinkholes on the road to Math knows where… For me, the shallow water hovers, covers the deep.