The Editors Write: William James first caught our attention as he and his work began to emerge from the Slam Free or Die reading in Manchester, NH. He’s a captivating writer, fearless in terms of both content and style. James can pivot between bare-bones raw lines devoid of all ornamentation to wild postmodern explosions, all without missing a beat. Moreover, James is a poet who wears his heart pinned to the lapel of a leather jacket, exposed and bleeding a bit. All of that emotion gets poured onto the page, bringing an honesty to his poems that rings with passion.
By William James
On the very best of nights,
there’s blood. It is unavoidable –
this room barely large enough
to be a prison cell is packed floor
to ceiling with equipment, the few
available square feet of floor space
hardly adequate to even hold the band,
let alone the crowd of fans that came
to see the show. There is a certain
magic in the game of human Tetris
that ensues, the way that inexplicably
all the pieces manage to fit,
some strange puzzle of limbs intersecting,
a sibling bond created by squeals of
feedback, dust, plaster kicked down
from overhead tiles, sweat dripping
from our faces enough to form
a thick fog. Oak smashing violent
into brass. Our lungs straining to
collapse in the moment – the chorus
swells and our fists begin dancing. A
forest of sweating palms and
bloodied knuckles forms the front lines;
behind us, dervishes whirl, and bodies
hurricane a celebration dance.
The microphone becomes a cube of
sugar dropped on an anthill – enveloped
by voices eager for their chance
to share in the sorcery of the night.
On the very best of nights,
there’s blood – pouring from
a broken nose, spilling down
a split lip – drawn from the vein
not by malice, but the simplicity of
physics – unlike the show, matter
cannot be double booked, so when
two mouths try to sing along in the same
golden spot next to the singer,
the skulls that carry them inevitably
collide. Unstoppable force meets
immoveable object at center stage.
A quick shake of hands, a moment’s pause
to clear the head, and the show goes on.
A freight train. A desert wind.
On the very best of nights,
there’s blood; on the very best of
mornings it pools beneath the
surface of our skin. We wear these
purple-yellow stains as medals
of honor and sacred vestments.
“Just look what I got! A scar to prove that
I belong, a bruise that claims me as family!
Just look at what I got!”
The cold brick the broken glass,
the dirt the spit the blood
the blood the blood.
May we never be afraid
to call this place our home.
Writes James: In 2010, I was getting ready to perform at my first-ever poetry feature at Got Poetry Live in Providence. Being my first show as a featured artist, I was more than a little nervous; seconds before he was about to introduce me as the feature for the night, Ryk leaned over and whispered into my ear “Hey William, you better not suck!” While he meant it as a way to help me calm the pre-show jitters, I’ve taken that message to heart in my years of performing and featuring around the country. In the time that I’ve known Ryk, he’s been not just a poetry peer, editor, and influence – I feel a lot of times as though Ryk has taken me under his wing and guided me, a young punk kid turned poet from the hills of western Pennsylvania. I asked Ryk for his poem Crash & Burn Diner because so many of the lines in this poem I remember from conversations he and I had when I was in the aftermath of a rather gruesome break-up. True to form, Ryk dispensed a heaping dose of “I’ve been there before, trust me kid you’ll get through this” wisdom. Later that summer, I would look in my copy of Ryk’s latest chapbook and recognize all that wisdom, now in the form of a poem. Ryk’s poems tend to be laden with wisdom, the kind you only get by going around the sun a few times, and I’m grateful that I get to call him my friend and mentor.
Crash and Burn Diner
By Ryk McIntyre
Every heartbreak comes in here to get a cup of coffee.
They grab up loose sections of other people’s newspapers
and pretend to read them. “What’s black and white and over?
Your last relationship!” I tell them all that joke. It never fails
to fail to get a laugh. What do I expect? Heartbreaks have
no sense of humor, though they do know some fine songs.
They play them on the jukebox all the time. Every heartbreak
is its own textbook. Each one so hungry to be read they fall
open at the slightest kind remark. I say, “Want some more
coffee?” and just watch them try and keep their faces fixed.
Then it’s tear-time and… I listen to them. Someone has to,
right? Shows how much I know about being mean to hearts
in distress. I sit, listen about what’s-his-name, what’s her-name,
what happened this time or that one time heartbreaks talk about
over and over. I try to act surprised and interested. Mostly I am.
I want them to get it out of their system, maybe leave this place,
try again in the outside world. They offer to settle their tabs
with their apologies. I tell ’em, “Stop selling your story short.
When Love fucks you over & dumps you at a bus stop, it sucks
every time. In your case, you and a friend tried to make that thing
of yours into something else. That can fail in one of three ways:
poor judgment, uncoordinated comedy, weird-quiet breakfasts…
you traded in friendship for a car you didn’t own long enough
to have faith in; not every friendship is going to be convertible.
Sometimes you can just U-turn it around, get back to where
you were more comfortable. Me? I’ve never been good throwing
things into reverse on that drive. I’m more the crash-and-burn type.
Last time it happened, I decided to open this roadside cafe
where the coffee is cheaper than moving on and not as bitter.
You tired? I got beds out back. Sleep. Dream of something better.
Writes James: Last year I moved from Shippenville, PA (population 480) to Manchester, NH (population quite a few more) and became a regular at Slam Free Or Die. I’d seen Raven McGill perform before when I rolled through as a feature, but it wasn’t until I became a regular fixture at the reading that I really got to experience her work. While slam isn’t the ideal way to become familiar with a poet’s repertoire, it did give me the chance to see Raven really grow into her own voice. She is a fierce and passionate writer who isn’t afraid to confront head-on some of the ugly realities of race and identity in 2014 America. Her poem Meanwhile, In Post-Racist America is a perfect example of this. When the Trayvon Martin Halloween costumes reared their ugly heads this fall, we knew that someone from the slam scene was going to address it – here, Raven tackles that topic admirably, never resorting to cliches or hamfisted “bad things are bad” tropes. Instead, we get a glimpse of a writer’s very raw and visceral reaction to a painful experience. Ultimately, I wish such poems no longer needed exist, but they do – and I’m glad that writers like Raven McGill are here to write them.
Meanwhile, In Post-Racist America
By Raven McGill
Blackface Halloween costume.
Blackface Trayvon Martin costume.
Blackface Trayvon Martin costume
with George Zimmerman counterpart.
Shame on us for expecting more.
Shame on us for not protecting ourselves
for not foreseeing that this shame
Shame on us for opening our internet browsers.
Shame on us for leaving bed.
Shame on us for forgetting that our life
is someone else’s costume
For forgetting that it’s fun and edgy
for someone else to wear our face
but damning for us to wear our face.
Shame on us.
The mouth of my pockets are lock-jaw.
The jaws of my pocket clamps
till I remember why its tongue is a knife
and why, in the mask of night
my hand is a locked jaw on a knife.
Have you ever noticed that the largest
things are always more frightened
of the smaller things than they are of it?
George Zimmerman costume,
did you pose like a proud tusk of street-light
for those Instagram photos?
Did your friends laugh and say
“You look so much like a monster
I almost didn’t know it was you.
Trayvon Martin costume,
did you feel like you belonged
when your friends posed their hands like guns?
Did the gas station attendant,
the other people in the other cars on your way
to the party, did they look at you
like you were something ugly?
Like they didn’t want you?
Did you feel like you belonged
to something ugly?
Did you make someone else
buy your beer, skittles, and iced tea for you?
Were you afraid of the night
wearing that hoodie, boy? Tell me.
Did wearing our face
make you any more “comfortable” around us?
Did you see any black people and tell them
not to worry,
that you make fun of every race the same
that just last year you dressed as
a white kindergartner from Connecticut
with a black hole in her head?
Did you tell them we’re not special
that you always dress as someone else’s tragedy?
I saw the pictures
and Shame wasn’t even a shadow in the room,
it was cradled in the tongue in my pocket
when I walked into the dark.