had to go out of town, so I got the call. There was a reading of UNCG poets over at neighboring Guilford College. Four poets; of which I was one. It was my first public reading ever and I lost a million cool points immediately by having a giant group of friends show up to cheer. ashley even drove up from Chapel Hill. I was, in my naivete, being called up from the minors. There were about 18 people in attendance, 12 of which were there for me. I was a giant geek.
I knew no one. The other three poets were Charlotte, David Jarrell, and our own John Ball. Charlotte read first; she was always talented, but witchy; scary-thin and scary period(!), she had a long Southern accent and read lines about "Dogs barking in the yard." Charlotte had predator written large in that voice, in those seductive lines. She invited me to her dorm room once to talk about poetry. I fled. I had a feeling that whatever happened behind that closed door would swallow my innocence forever.
I read second. 115 pounds of 19 year-old manic tobacco-stimulated insanity and a filthy blue ballcap, I actually remember three of the poems, though they are all now lost to winds and fires and have been for some time. One was a series of sketches about Tate Street, one was called "January Birds", and one was an epic length (too long for a public reading, really) masterpiece (sense irony) of swampy humidity and broken hymens. It was called "Dryrot" and it was about six pages long. David Jarrell read next, like everyone's favorite English professor with a sheet of acid, god knows what he was talking about. Some may have been in Middle English.
The headliner was J.B. He was huge and charismatic with silver hair and a commanding, teasingly hesitant voice. He had a book out, self-published, that all my friends had bought. There were rumors that he had sold all his furniture for his art. His poems weren't too long and they were funny at just the right times. He was a showman as well; at one point he threw a pocketful of spare change into the audience. I loved it and hated it, every corpuscle boiling. I had found my first rival. It was our first meeting. I wish there were a picture of it.
On top of it all, his poems were really good. I still remember the one about the mushrooms growing out of the floor of his mother's house. Beautiful.
ashley told me afterwards that my reading was the best and that J.B. was just better at that entertainment-type stuff. 'Fucking rock star.' I thought. Mostly, I was mad that she was wrong and that he was much, much better at this poetry thing than I was.
Still is. It just doesn't threaten me anymore.
So, among other things, I guess I can thank Gary McCracken for John Ball and my call-up to the 'bigs.'