Sitting at the Wet End of a Hose of Words

Happily, I got invited to Third Man yesterday to sit in the blue room and watch while Abraham Smith read his forthcoming book of poetry out loud. It took three hours. We had multiple breaks and were encouraged to bring our lunches, which I did.

It was a small crowd–me, a professor from Watkins who loves old history stuff, poet Ciona Rouse, Adia Victoria and a friend of hers, two women I didn’t know, but the blond one looked vaguely familiar, and I think there might have been another guy. This is why Methodists fill from the back–so you can see who all was there. But I wanted to sit close, so I may have missed who was behind me. And all the Third Man crew.

I know I’ve talked about this before, but I remain in awe of the way that Chet can set the vibe of a space and hold it. There’s a lot of trust he’s able to invoke almost instantly–“Hey, we’re going to do something cool that, if you agree to just be present for, could be wild.”

Having someone read his poetry to you for three hours is surreal. At first, I listened like I would at any poetry reading, paying attention to phrasing and imagery and trying to decide if there was a narrative to the poem or if it was a collection of images. But you can’t–or I can’t anyway–hold a three hour poem in my head. So, at other times, I was just hearing the repeating sounds of words, not even the words themselves, just the kkkkkkk or the chchchchchch and realizing that other people in the audience might have been struck only by all the sssssses.

Then my mind would kind of loop around to hearing words and phrases and verses again, but other times, I would just hear the rhythm of it.

Like, in listening so long and so intently, I forgot how to listen and had to relearn. It also felt mildly hallucinogenic. Every time we took a break and left the dark room and went out into the bright space of the porch, it felt like we were leaving some place where time had no meaning and entering a smaller, flatter world, which, frankly, was a nice respite.

By the third hour, you could see he was suffering. He would stuff first one hand in his pocket and then the other. Sometimes he would grasp his back. Often, when he moved his arms, sweat would fling off him. They mic-ed the box he was standing on, to pick up the sound of him stomping his boots on wood, but by the end, he was not stomping, just, occasionally tapping. He was wrung out.

And I was on his side. We all were, that small half-dozen or so of us, leaning in and willing him, urging him to make it to the end. And he did. And then he collapsed in a chair and I high-fived him.

He was spent and grateful, but I felt like he had done something for us, and I was grateful, too.

When I got back to the office, my co-worker asked me if it was good and I said, “I don’t know.” It seemed weirdly beside the point. It was extraordinary. And I’m really glad I got to be a part of it.

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