Detroit - If you've never had to stand in front of a roomful of people who don't care, I envy you. And if you've never seduced that room into paying attention, I feel sorry for you. Just a little.
But it's self-pity I feel now, barely awake as we escape a small venue and tough crowd in Windsor a music audience, and we're a spoken word troupe. Five slam poets from Toronto heading for the Rust Belt Midwest Regional Poetry Slam in Columbus, Ohio, gigging on the way.
I drop my bag in the donated basement of a house just outside Windsor's core. Packing is like performing, or writing: if it's to work, everything extraneous has to be left out. Looking at my bag, packed with things I can't do without (clothes, a notebook, a few novels, a copy of the Tao Te Ching), I see the distillation of self.
"Just before death, you learn what you value." The words of Detroit poet Cassie Poe come to me as I sit in the backyard. Cassie and I won't meet until tomorrow, but that doesn't matter: if we're to believe Harold Bloom, great poetry evokes feelings of both inevitability and surprise.
There's no better way to describe a road trip. I turn my eyes to the sky and the patient glow of Venus returning my gaze like a stray cat.
James Lovelock theorized that Venus and Earth were once alike. "Life was an almost utterly improbable event with almost infinite opportunities of happening," wrote Lovelock. "So it did." An inevitable surprise.
Life got lucky and ran with it, modifying its surroundings and being modified by them. Trusting in instability. Acting without acting (wei-wu-wei, a Taoist principle), as fine a metaphor for travelling as I can find, especially when hopping couches across the Midwest, putting the generosity of strangers to the test and the theory of feedback into practice. The relationship between performer and audience is a cycle, a diagram of faith.
The relationship between Windsor and Detroit, though, seems to be that of an old couple always fighting. They're radically different but intrinsically linked. Somehow, it makes more sense when I think of it as one segregated city split by a river (and race and class), with the Ford building at the centre giving everyone the finger.
Central Detroit, paean to the automobile, laid out roughly like a wheel, is impossible to drive. Motor City motorists spend a lot of time looking wistfully at their destination and driving in the opposite direction. "It's right there." "Yeah, but we're on the wrong spoke."
In contrast, Detroit poets are adroit at speaking directly. It's humbling to share a stage with them, and sobering to hear references to street brutality and Jesus dropped as casually as a hand running absent-mindedly through hair.
A well-known clan of local beggars shows up after our gig at Bits and Bytes seeking spare change and food. One shows off his freestyle skills, while an older gent recites Kipling. "If you can make one heap of all your winnings / And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss / And lose, and start again at your beginnings / And never breathe a word about your loss...."
I've always found the poem cloying, but when this grizzled, bright-eyed man speaks, it assumes a vibrant urgency.
I feel more at home among these slammer strangers than at home. We're poets. Our nation is the word, its stages are our city.
A couple of days later, it feels like a city crammed into the High Beck Tavern in Columbus. The Rust Belt slam has drawn teams from Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, DC, Baltimore, Buffalo and, for some reason, Atlanta. We're from Canada, and everyone seems to think that's just the cutest thing ever.
We extend our trip vicariously via poetry reps of these cities. In my fantasy almanac of cultural distinctions, DC is quirky and a bit gay; Cleveland has an undercurrent of speed and volume like an underground river. Atlanta is kind of scary in a sexy way, or kind of sexy in a scary way. Buffalo is Toronto with soul; Chicago is Toronto with nicer shoes and more sarcasm.
Poet after poet teaches me about performance, about needing three minutes or less to make the walls of a packed room bend toward each other in a kind of static cling.
Poet Jah Live, temporarily in a wheelchair, does more with voice and hand than I can imagine doing with body and body double. Chicago's Alvin Lau bursts into hypnotic breakdance while speaking, convincing me that the spotlight is a strobe light. Cassie Poe delivers her poem with a power drawn from beneath the building.
Detroit takes home the title, upsetting Chicago's streak. I make a mental note: invent a new kind of applause, discover a more clarifying form of gratitude.
The most impressive of these folks don't just do poetry, they live poetically. There's a vital density to them. I feel a commitment erupting: hunt distraction until it brims with focus, harvest boredom and make bread of fascination. Pay attention. Things would be so much better if we all just paid attention.
On the road, I rummage in my bag, burrowing through things I haven't touched once. Necessity is a smaller page than I thought. I hear the words of Jah Live: "Property is nothing, your only belonging is yourself." And quite a Swiss army knife that self is, when all you need is the ability to read a map and a nimble tongue.
The motor starts. We're headed home, but in my mind we'll just keep drawing that free-hand line across the map. (Toronto? Naw.. We've been there already?") The destination? Wherever we're going. The plan? Whatever's called for when we arrive. Life becomes simple but dense, like a fine metaphor, when all you have to do is do what's next when trust isn't just an option, but your only belonging.