Cheryl A. Rice at the WordFest Open Mic, Albany Public Library, April 21, 2012

The Flying Monkey: My Thing

Everybody’s got their thing. A thing no one else would understand. A thing you put time and effort into above and beyond everyday life. So it is with poetry, which is not a profession, not a marketable product you’ll sell at a table in a flea market, nothing you punch in for like a 9 to 5 gig. Poetry is the most ephemeral of arts, sometimes committed to print but most often a whisp of a phrase offered in the stillness of a coffee house or side street bar between pulls of espresso or jiggling 45s in a classic jukebox.

Since the Pandemic has ebbed, live in-person readings have begun to reappear like the tulips that somehow lift their waxy heads every spring in Washington Park. Not in the generous numbers of past years, sometimes enough to fill a week or a month, leaving poets scrambling to find new work to read so as not to repeat themselves before many familiar ears. These days, some readings have ended their runs. Others have lost their venues, and are Zooming for now, a decent alternative but nothing like seeing each other, the hugs, and the kisses that make our local poetry circles like a second (or for some, a first) family.

And I have become lazy about leaving the house. I work from home now during the winter, and my Beloved is too quick sometimes to run errands, leaving me to contemplate my own four walls, even wondering if purchasing a house was the right thing to do. It was, and the peace of mind about that preserves me. The other night, I found myself out after dark, bundled into my beloved Rogue, popping in a new CD I would never have time or privacy enough to listen to at home. If the weather had been messy, I’d just as soon have stayed home and watch the instant reply on YouTube the next day. But the night was clear, with the major stars visible in my upstate New York sky.

I should be more consistent in breathing the outdoor air, but I am not. So when the clean, dry chill shocks my lungs, it is more delight than surprise. Once I get going, the heat comes on, and the music begins, I am happy I made the effort, though unsteady behind the wheel. Even on weekends now, my Beloved does most of the driving. I know these roads too well and yet have to think about the turns, the crosswalks, where the city has created new parking to make way for a la mode bike paths. But the gallery glows green in the night, like Gatsby’s elusive East Egg dream.

One friend kneels in mock devotion. A side hug from another, awkward over the folding chairs, neither of us nimble enough to scoot around, is welcome. I am at ease here, in my element, among familiar voices. The gallery owner pats my shoulder as he passes, adjusts the cameras obsessively as the three features perform. The lights are unflattering. I have evidence of my own two chins multiplying on this stage. The sound is too low, especially in the recordings. But I come when I can.

Poetry is a unique art that, at its best, welcomes all comers, amplifies all voices, and opens the door for all who knock. In so much of my life these days, longtime supports crumble, old banners fray and shred in unfamiliar wind. But at a poetry reading, I know my place. I know I am part of an ancient tradition, for better or worse. I see the lights above, below, and settle in, water bottle at hand. I converge with my tribe around the fire.