Slammin’ Down with Andrea Gibson

Sabrina talks poetry and activism with Andrea Gibson.

[box]Andrea Gibson is a slam poet whose work focuses on social and political issues such as gender norms, sexuality, and war. She additionally works with a group called “Vox Feminista,” a group dedicated to expressing these issues through performance art. Andrea has published six books, four of them self-published and two of them through Write Bloody Publishing in 2009 and 2011, and has won awards at the Denver Grand Slam, the 2004 National Poetry Slam, and the 2006 and 2007 Individual World Poetry Slam. [/box]

Sabrina Melendez: What is your definition of slam poetry?

Andrea Gibson: Slam is a competition that was invented in the mid 80’s by Marc Smith, a construction worker in Chicago who wanted poetry readings to be more engaging, more interesting to audiences, more passionate and exciting. Spoken word poetry is an art form that has become more popular because of slam competitions. Everyone defines spoken word differently. For me, spoken word is the art of reading a poem out loud in a way that emotionally and authentically represents the mood of the poem on the page. It requires a willingness from the poet to enter the poem with her whole self, and to essentially live that poem into sound.

SM: What do you think is lost when poetry is written down rather than said aloud? Vice versa?

AG: I don’t think anything is lost in either direction. I think they are simply different ways of expressing. On the page, for example, the emotion of an entire piece can be contained in a single line break. On the stage, the poet’s voice might crack. I believe both the page and stage are places where a poem can live fully.

SM: Do you consider yourself an activist through your poetry and if so, from what point in time did you begin to consider yourself so?

AG: I started competing in poetry slams in the same year I joined Vox Feminista, a radical performance group of women, trans, and genderqueer people bent on social change. Vox is a group that is as committed to direct action as it is committed to creating art the inspires people to live in a kinder more compassionate way. It’s not that I think art in itself is inactive, but I think to best serve any social movement, that art has to at some point inspire
direct action. Vox’s motto is to “Comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” and I have in many ways adopted that as the backbone for my writing.

SM: How did you launch your career as a poet? Any advice for people interested in pursuing slam poetry?

AG: I discovered poetry slam in Denver in 1999. I competed for several years with the Denver slam team. I owe more than I can name here to the poets in that community. We travelled to National Poetry Slam competitions around the country, and I was doing a lot of local events as well. In 2003 I started booking my own tours and for the next couple of years did a ton of very small shows featuring at poetry readings and slams in any city that would have me. I was on the road constantly, selling just enough chapbooks each night to buy gas to get to the next city. In 2005 I lucked out and met my current manager, Christen Greene. Christen’s roster, except for me, is made up entirely of musicians– so my career has been structured a little differently than some of the other touring poets I know. When asked to give advice to people wishing to pursue a career in spoken word I often say: 1) write your heart out, 2) write even when you don’t feel like writing 3)come to every single performance open and attentive and electric with the knowing that each stage is a blessing and a privilege, 4) perform your poems to as many people as will listen, in as many venues as you can, in as many cities you are able to travel to, and 5) have an online presence in which your work is readily available for people to find.

SM: In one of your previous interviews, you admitted that you have horrible stage fright. Do you have any coping methods or rituals for before you go on stage?

AG: Yeah, stage fright… you would think after 13 years it would go away, wouldn’t you?? It hasn’t, and honestly I’ve tried just about everything and have not figured out a good way to deal with the pre-performance stage fright, but once I get on the actual stage I’ve learned to channel that nervousness into the emotion of the piece. It’s sort of a meditation in removing my ego from the whole experience and just letting the poem exist and run through me. Typically by my 3rd poem of the set, I’ve stopped sweating through my shirt.

SM: Does your poetry just spew out when you write it or does it take a long time?

AG: I write out loud. I write running around my house, screaming at the walls, jumping on the couch. So yeah, I guess you’d call that part a spewing. What takes time is the piecing together at the end. Linking metaphors, linking rhythm, having all the spewing tie together in a way that works in a whole piece. I’m especially particular about the sound of a poem, until it flows in my ear like a song, it doesn’t feel finished.

SM: Sometimes you use music behind your poetry and sometimes you don’t. What is your take on that? Are there certain poems that stand better alone, and why?

AG: I started using music behind my poems because I have so many incredible musician friends I wanted to collaborate with. Also, when I’m writing I almost always have music playing in the background, so it just felt fitting to add that layer on stage. That said, there are some poems that live best alone. This year I’ve had the opportunity to perform alongside poets who never ever use music with their poems, and I’ve found that single voice on stage incredibly alive and refreshing, more raw and gutsy, in a way. So my use of music may shift a bit in the future.

SM: When you think, do you think in pictures, feelings, or words?

AG: Feelings.

SM: Any recurring dreams you’d be willing to share with us?

AG: I am 4 years old. My father is watering the lawn of the local bank where he’s the janitor. A very very tall cat in a suit and a top hat walks up and throws me over his shoulder. I scream for my father. He looks at me, smiles, and keeps watering the lawn. He, for some reason, can’t see the cat. I keep screaming. The cat carries me to a huge ice house in the middle of the forest. He locks me inside. And then I wake up. (This is what I call the “Bad Cat Dream”. I’ve had it since I was 4 years old. If you have any ideas on how to prematurely remove a dream from your dream life, please let me know. I’d love to never see that cat again. 🙂 )

No Place Like Home

Luis Bermudez Ham, of Mexico, examines what it’s like to lose a sense of home. He also likes turtles.

Visual art by Jing Li

People have a tendency to forget things. They forget things they learn, they forget things they say, and they forget the friends they’ve made. In a world where materialism is the norm, the more we have, the easier it is to forget.

Lately this thought had been rambling around my head a lot. It’s funny, how when you think about something for a long time you start seeing it everywhere you go. In reality, that something has always been there, but it’s not until you think about it that you actually start acknowledging its existence.

Lately I have been noticing people forget. Sometimes they forget who they are, or where they come from. They forget about their true friends and end up abandoning them. Other times they forget about a nonsensical love, or a broken heart. A myriad of people have told me about the feeling one gets when one finally forgets someone who has caused pain, of someone who has harmed. They said they had finally realized how idiotic they were, how, if given the choice somehow, they would never repeat their actions. I nod and agree; only really interested in the landscape passing by the window. Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy stories passionately, but after a while of hearing the same things over and over again, even the most interesting fables can turn into tedious sermons. People, for some reason, have a tendency to trust me, which I do not understand. Is it that they pity me? Is my face a trustworthy one? I don’t know. All I know is I’ve been a runaway for about 5 months now. I have hitchhiked about 1,200 miles, and every time I get into a car, or van, or truck, I have had to listen to someone’s story. I haven’t shaved, but thanks to my wondrous age of 15, my facial hair can easily be mistaken for the dirt on my face. I guess people aren’t used to seeing someone as young as me hitchhiking, so they feel sorry for me. I believe they use pity as an excuse to unburden themselves onto someone, anyone, even this dirty 15-year-old kid.

This last ride has left me in the middle of a highway right before a road division, somewhere in the state of Nevada. The sun’s heat has made me regret taking my fur-lined leather jacket. But it has served me well. After all, when I left Milwaukee it was still winter, and the snow and cold would have been a problem if it hadn’t been for this jacket. And to be honest, it wasn’t like I had any other type of clothing I could have packed. But now my long-sleeved shirt smells of sweat, and I finally decide to take it off, not giving much importance to sunburn.

A car drives by, the driver ignoring my signal for him to pick me up. As I walk, I think about the last person that let me hop in.

She was a middle aged woman, with skin as white as milk, like an angel. She drove a green pick-up and spoke with a beautiful southern accent. If I hadn’t been in a different place mentally, I could have had a crush on her. She told me the story of her life, of how her two boys grew tired of her and abandoned her. She told me, with light in her eyes, how she used to play with them when they were younger and all the fun they had. She told me how on stormy days, they would stay inside watching movies, putting quilts over the windows, making forts out of pillows, pretending they were in a theatre. But it all changed when her husband left them. He had grown tired of his daily routine. He thought that if he managed to escape his boring life, he would be happier. She told me how later she would walk with them to the town square in a futile effort to forget what had happened, and she began crying when she remembered how they could escape their reality on those afternoons as they ate ice cream on Main Street. But her boys had grown up to be very independent and had moved away. Although they had kept in touch with her for a while, they eventually stopped talking to her. According to her sons, she was the reason their father had left. She would never be forgiven. But something had come up, and her first son had called her. She was ecstatic to hear her son’s voice, but the happiness didn’t last long. Her smaller boy was in the hospital, and from what she told me, it was really bad. Pneumonia or something like that. Real sad. I had a cousin who once died of pneumonia. Her death shocked me; I had never had anyone close to me die.

     A sudden breeze of cool air snaps me back from my wandering thoughts. Drivers keep passing me by, but my arm aches so I stop making signs. As if they would actually stop to pick me up again. As if anyone really cares I am here. As if anyone really cares for me. Is that reason enough to run away? I don’t know. It was for me, but someone else might swallow it and learn to live with it. But I refuse. I want to live somewhere where people care. Where they care about what happens to me. I want to matter. I wanted to matter. To make a difference. I don’t care now. Things change, people forget, people forgive, and people die. People find a way, or they lose themselves. People have a way of making things different.

My friends all vanished, disappeared under a thin veil of nothingness. Some found a passion in underage drinking. The adrenaline of being above the law combined with alcohol filled them with euphoria. Others moved. They wanted to become rock stars and photographers, but I knew, as everyone did, that it was just a waste of time and that their trip to Hollywood was nothing but misused money. My dad vanished too. He got a promotion, and stopped coming home for weeks at a time. Since it was just me at home, I had to survive on Mac ‘n Cheese and Cocoa Puffs. I started skipping school, and the more I got away with it, the more I enjoyed my new freedom. My mom died when I was very young. I can’t quite remember her, but my dad used to say she was wonderful, so I just believed him. Suddenly, I wished I had known her. A feeling of loneliness began to soak me, but the paradoxical thought that this might get me attention from someone somehow, made me not want to dry it off. After a while I grew tired of this, and figured that if I could make it here, without a father, I could make it anywhere else. And I had made it all the way to this hot, wild, tomb-like desert.

The heat is overbearing. Sweat falls to the road and quickly disappears. Cars do not pass by anymore. Or at least that’s what I think. I have stopped paying attention to the road. The rock I was sitting by lent me her shadow, but it’s noon, and all the shade is gone. I put my sweaty shirt over my head, hoping it will ease my heat. My shoes are destroyed. The only reason I have kept them is because the ground would cook my feet. “Oh well, I’ll take them off when I’m hungry.” I say out loud, and surprise myself. Am I really going crazy? I must be. I must find a car. I have lost the strength to get up, and honestly I don’t think I would get picked up anyway. Maybe I should put my shirt back on. I traveled 1,200 miles with my shirt on. But the heat is suffocating, so I decide I’ll put it on later. For now, I’ll just stay here, next to this rock. A loud car passes by, it’s roaring engine driving my attention back to the road. But the more attention that I give the driver, the more he seems to ignore me. Drivers probably think I’m dead by now. Abandonment. The story of the milk-skinned woman hits me, and I suddenly realize my situation. The human body can only stand a number of days without water. My sweating like a pig will only make dehydration quicker. I only hope death will be brief.  All motionless, all beat up. I made it all the way to this desert but what has changed? Why has luck suddenly flown away from me? Or have these past six months been only a dream? Could this be just a nightmare? I wish it were. I wish I were still home, with the people I loved. What have I done?

People have a tendency to forget things. We forget things we learn, we forget things we say, and we forget friends we’ve make. We forget the love others feel for us, and we forget the love we feel for others. We forget the good times, but we keep the bad times, as if they were an excuse to justify our actions. People forget. I forgot. I forgot all the warmth of my home. I forgot about my dad, and how he always called me when he was away. I forgot my friends, how they phoned me worried when I skipped school and how they cried when they had to move.  I forgot how they wrote home every day. I forgot about all the parties I attended myself. All the fun I had had with my friends. I forgot about my place on earth, and now it’s too late. I forgot about home. I forgot that there’s no place like home.

Culinary Arts & the Cost of Creativity

Rebecca Qian, of the International School of Beijing, writes about her emotions behind a biological necessity – food.

Visual art by Chloe Kim.

There was a time, that when I could no longer draw pleasure from the repetition of daily life, I turned to food for a sense of satisfaction. For most, food was a necessity. I begged to differ. It had long since intrigued me as to why culinary arts courses were not included in schools and universities, when visual arts and music were. Perhaps what separated the culinary arts is the fundamentality of food. Food is the most basic prerequisite for survival, unlike music or art, both of which provoke thought yet do little for starving children. Ironically, the importance of food to our survival appears to have lowered our opinion of culinary culture. The word “food” too often brings proletarian connotations, conjuring up images of ravenous youth mindlessly devouring plates of their daily bread, whereas “music” or “art” seem to be reserved for the elite; those who have the luxury to explore spirituality, away from the monotony of everyday life.

There was a time when every meal brought a surprise, and I would walk away from the dinner table relishing aftertastes of pleasure. Amidst the humdrum of day to day family life, I changed things up by introducing new items of food to our dining repertoire. I could not understand why people would make claims such as “I don’t like tomatoes” or “I don’t eat cheese”. What do you mean by “I don’t like tomatoes”? Tomatoes and mozzarella topped with Pesto sauce in an Italian Caprese, or Chinese Ji Dan Chao Xi Hong Shi (Fried tomato and eggs)? May I also point out that there are infinite varieties of cheese. Do you not like blue cheese, cheddar cheese, cream cheese or goat cheese? Every type of raw produce meant infinite possibilities for creative expression. Every dish became a product of creativity, a testament to human will power to utilize, explore and create. To generalize these products of creativity was a crime, for sure. For me, a gourmet dish was a work of art, a masterpiece half complete. The other half, of course, was eating it.

I saw dishes as latent emotions, waiting to be released at the tongue. As spicy fish danced provocatively on my taste buds, and dark chocolate lulled my numbing tongue, I could not help but become affected by the empathetic nature of dining. Each tasting became a sensual experience of another world, an opening trapdoor to escape into that other realm of the imagination, defined by tastes and colors. Colors, splashes of colors. There’s nothing quite like the euphoria I gained from seeing a dish for the first time, and being shocked into awareness by its brilliantly imperfect array of bold colors.

Now I see it differently. I cannot enjoy Coq Au Vin without the deafening realization that my pleasure must be derived from the death of another being. The deep, colorful hues and rich aromas of the dish no longer entice me with their aesthetic appeal; rather, I find myself insensitive to its artistry.  I am preoccupied with images of chicken, struggling to escape the grasp of a man’s hand that brandishes the fatal butcher’s knife as if it is an insignificant toy. Or worse-they could be silently awaiting their preordained executions, acknowledging that their sole purpose in life was to become part of culinary “art”. The knife strikes timely-as it should, for the chicken’s life is subservient to the needs of humans. Then the next chicken is brought up for slaughter. The ensuing bloodbath may simply be erased by a blood-stained mop. Yet not even the knowledge that nutrition is the basis of my survival can erase the daunting images of blood and death. It only cements the irony that one’s life must be derived from the death of another’s.

Perhaps I opt for vegetarianism, and abstain from consuming mammals altogether. Vegetables don’t protest, they don’t flutter their wings like chickens, so I should eat them instead-I can hear the argument formulating already.

There are mushrooms on my plate, supposedly to “enhance the flavor of the chicken”. Suddenly I am flooded with visions of mushrooms, scores upon scores of them, rooted robustly into the firm earth. Their watchful existence brings a sense of peace, providing me with some of nature’s rare moments of tranquility. Then the peace is disturbed-as it always is-by humans plucking up the mushrooms, children tugging away at their roots. What they leave behind is a scarred field, with the pits serving as remnants of abducted lives. Some see vegetarianism as a compromise; I see murder as murder.

What frightens me is the notion that the necessity of food is irrelevant, the possibility that even if we as humans did not need to eat, we would still continue to do so. This is a thought that pesters me day and night, for I am forced to recognize the plausibility of said argument. The mere concept of high-end restaurants, luxury food marketing and the existence of so-called food critics demonstrate that food is no longer restricted to serving our most basic needs, but has also become a source of satisfaction and often a symbol of prestige. This is an observation that I once welcomed with joy, since it meant the elevation of the status of food from a commodity to a luxury good, comparable to that of art or music. I had championed cuisine as a stimulus of emotions and creativity, ardently defending my beliefs in the name of art and pleasure.

The origin of my transformation is an episode of the reality TV series Masterchef USA, in which a Hindu woman is forced to kill a crab in order to advance in the cooking competition. The contestant-who had never killed an animal in her life-was presented with a dilemma; she would either kill the crab, neglecting her religious beliefs, or save the crab, which would bring her emotional satisfaction but result in her elimination. It was with tears that she finally flung the wriggling crab into the boiling pot of water. Upon tasting the completed dish, Judge Gordon Ramsey praised the dish for its unique flavor and seasoning, and then proceeded to comment “I am sure this crab would have been happy to give its life for this dish.” The reasoning behind his justification of killing the crab is fallible, to say the least. The crab would have been happy to give its life for what, a transient taste of pleasure on our tongues? Does the honor of the crab’s death rest on the flavors of its corpse, now? The assumption that any living being would be willing to sacrifice its own life in exchange for another’s creativity is bizarre logic that I cannot comprehend, and it is this bizarre logic that led me to question the morality of cuisine.

I now see chefs as dead animal processors, pondering over how to best present a piece of corpse. My appreciation of culinary dishes is tainted by blood, and my once purely aesthetic satisfaction is marred by the awareness that I am chewing carcasses of the deceased. It does not matter that I do not physically partake in killings; by eating their products I have become complicit in the murderer’s crime. Every meal is now a vicarious experience of another murder. As if the world did not have enough murders already! I can sense the gradual deterioration of my sensitivity to death, numbed by the repeated acknowledgements of plant and animal slaughter.

I feel compelled to view the murdering of animals through the grander perspective of life and death. Nature dictates that certain living organisms feed off other living organisms in order to survive. On the life-death continuum, the killing of a couple of chickens and crabs appear as insignificant events bound to occur sooner or later. Yet it is when the production of food surpasses our most elemental requirements for survival, when I try to view dishes through a less animalistic perspective, that I am bombarded by these recurring portrayals of gore and violence.

The only conclusion I can draw from my experiences is that creativity comes with sacrifice. These animals-aren’t they victims of our ingenuity? This phenomenon of sacrificial innovation occurs imperceptibly everywhere in our daily lives. Chemical products may only be deemed “safe to use” for humans if they have undergone rigorous testing on lab rats. Even humans are sacrificed; the advancement of technology is often based upon the previous products’ adverse effects on humans. More tragically, the potency of military technology must be determined from weapon tests in war. The irony of us imposing deaths on others is that we ourselves are also victims of the omnipotent death. Perhaps we derive gratification from imposing death on others, but one day, it will be imposed upon us, as if mocking our attempts at recreating it. And aren’t our lives solely dedicated to serving the grand scheme of human society, just as the chicken’s life is dedicated to serving us? The question of whether it matters to the chicken if its corpse was cooked beautifully or thrown away is as pertinent as whether we are affected by societal developments after our deaths. My meals no longer stand as a testament to creativity, but as a testament to the cruelty of this world, a testament to death. And that is why, when I see the familiar hamburger I had once grown to love, I have no choice but to shudder in fear.

Boyd Fortin

Tabriz Mohsenin, a Senior from Woodside, CA, tells the story of a boy who kills rattlesnakes and vehemently unearths fate. She plans on pursuing her love of experimental films, integrating visual art and writing.

When I own a gun I can shoot the snakes right off the ground. Pick them off when they slither out of the grasses, collect their bodies and sling them over my shoulders like belts of ammo. I’ve been in Texas forever, collecting rattlesnakes like clues, but they’ve never told me anything. Creeping up on them where the grass grows high, jump on their backs and slice off their heads before they can twist around and bite you. Stick the knife in and rip through the scales, direct as silver, though you’re only using steel. I carry them home in the red dusk, when it’s too dark to see the snakes flicker in the grass. More likely they get you than you them if you’re killing in the dark.

When I was six, my dad bought me a plastic toy gun. Orange-tipped, with rounds of caps like plastic flowers. He bought it at the hardware store, and whenever he went back for replacement drill bits, he’d buy another pack of caps. I’d shoot almost all of them, until I had one round left, which I’d save until he bought another set or left for good.

I’ve killed a lot of rattlesnakes. I don’t know how many. I started when I was eight and haven’t stopped since. I’m thirteen now. You can’t see them when you look out at the grass from the porch. It looks like a wasteland, flat and lifeless. But I haven’t run out of snakes in five years. I don’t even have to walk far to find them, behind my mother’s house where their thick bodies coil in the dust. I thought they would be gone eventually. I thought if I just killed enough of them I could wipe out the species. Or at least scare the rest of them out of Texas. But I guess I should know by now that you can’t make anything go away. Things leave if they want and stay if they don’t. Doesn’t matter what you do.

My dad left when I was seven and three quarters. Nearly two years after he bought me that cap gun. Nearly two years of saving the last round, but it was only a precaution, really. I never thought I wouldn’t get any more. But then he packed his worn-out shirts and jeans in two plastic drugstore bags, the red Thank Yous gleaming absurdly down the bulging sides as he slammed out the front door, screaming “Fuck you!”

The first time I killed a snake was at the 1974 Rattlesnake Round-Up. Everyone in Sweetwater goes to it. A hundred some people in white aprons with dark purple blood smeared across their cheeks, hands clutching the limp carcasses of snakes like ice cream cones. I killed my first snake, sliced its head clean off and gutted it with the same knife. Tore its body straight down the middle the way the barber from Main Street instructed, as he stood over the cooler of beer and 7Up, cleaning the dried blood out from under his nails with a toothpick.

After my dad left, my mom lost about half her body weight. Looked like a stork with her skinny legs and a throat that always looked too tired to eat even if she tried. Flaps of skin hanging from her chin to the tendons in her neck, which always seemed over-stretched, like it might collapse, crushing her windpipe till she gasped like a fish out of water and died contorted on the floor with her face mottled blue. I dream that a lot. My mom dying like a fish.

I can’t imagine dying though I’ve tried till it made my chest ache. The closest I came was the summer of 1978, when a snake bit me on the inside of my arm. It was the only time I got bit. Jumped on its back, but my grip on the knife was loose, and the snake swung its head round at me before I could cut it off. I screamed till my voice cracked and cried though I was twleve years old. My mother came running ‘cause I was only a few yards out from the back porch and got me to the hospital in my dad’s old pick-up truck, so I never saw my life flash before my eyes like they say you do. Or maybe I did, and I just couldn’t tell the difference between the grass plains and red dust sliding past the car windows and that lightning synopsis of my life, since they’re really just the same thing.

My parents moved to Texas from Nevada, where my dad worked at a hotel in Las Vegas. He said it was no place to raise a kid, so they went to Lubbock while my mother was pregnant, then Sweetwater once I was born, though she didn’t want to. I think about how the Texas dust is ingrained in my skin in a way that soap and water can’t wash off and how the desert has curled up inside me with the other things that eat me from the inside out. But my parents aren’t even from here, and still the place is in my DNA as much as they are. No one ends up where they were born, but somehow I don’t think I’ll ever get out.

When I was bit, I had to stay in the hospital four days. Rolling Plains Medical Center, second floor. I mostly just remember it being dark and feeling like I was in a movie. People think of hospitals as white, but this one was a disappointing beige, with blankets the sick yellow of pus. It was the same hospital I was born in, and I thought it would be symbolic to die there too, but I didn’t. I wrote my name on the bed post, ‘Boyd Fortin’ in silver Sharpie, then wished I hadn’t. I didn’t want to trap myself in there. Maybe I had a premonition of my return without realizing, and that’s why I wrote it. But when I went back a year later it was gone.

I found my old cap gun the night before I left in my closet. I wrapped it in the apron from my first Round-Up, the one I wore every time I killed snakes, but didn’t need anymore. I wanted to do something symbolic, burn or bury it like a corpse, but those things are always meaningless. I look for symbols everywhere, but mostly I just believe in chaos. Everything’s a mess, spinning in space towards a black hole, a great empty cavity like the one in my liver that forced me back to this hospital. And the whole universe is moving so fast, the earth spinning and the cells disintegrating in my guts, but you wouldn’t know it, in this cinderblock room where everything seems still. They repainted the walls. Still beige.

They found the tapeworm three months ago, a few days before my thirteenth birthday, which I spent in an X-ray machine. I’d been nauseous for weeks, living on ginger ale and children’s Tylenol ‘cause my stomach hurt too bad for anything else. At the time, I thought it felt like needles stabbing my side, but now I imagine tiny teeth chewing at my liver. There’s a hole there, and lots of pus. The doctor showed me the slides. Gray smudges of organs around a skinny white slash that dictated my future. That’s the worm, he said, watching my face as I nodded.

If everything really is pointless, and I think it is, I wonder why the snakes are still here. If I look carefully, I can see them out the window from my hospital bed. It hurts, propping myself up on my elbows enough to look over the sill, but if I’m sick anyway, it hardly matters. They blend in with the dust, but I’ve learned what to look for. Flickers of sunlight on the scales, slight stirs of grass. And if they’re out there, alive, and I’m in here, dying, I could prove that the world is ruled by chaos, ‘cause I could kill them. I could slice their heads off and gut them. I could if I could only lift myself from this bed. But sometimes, I think that worms and snakes aren’t so different, and then I wonder if there is such a thing as fate.

You Are Everything

Dante writes a devotional ode to Everything.

Visual art by Vita Wang
You are everything,
the sky,
the trees,
the earth,
they’re all a part of you, and you are a part of them.
You are the pigeon,
soaring through the sky,
and landing on the telephone wire.
You are the door to the house across the street,
slightly open, not completely closed
as if it couldn’t decide.
You are the pinecone
that just fell off the branch.
It collides with the ground with a thump.
You are the glass bottle,
shattered on the pavement,
like a million broken secrets
that will never be told.
You are the child,
sitting on the roof, lost in thought,
pretending to be something you aren’t.
You shouldn’t be pretending. You should be studying.
You have a math test tomorrow.
You must be crazy, sitting on the roof,
wasting your time.
You don’t want to flunk the test again.
What are you doing on the roof, anyway?
It’s dangerous to sit on the roof. If you fell off,
you could really hurt yourself.
You return to your bedroom window.
Somewhere, across the street, you hear a door slam.

Hands

A boy struggles with the death of his mother in Becky Hirsch’s short play “Hands.”

Visual art by Ben Mcnutt

SETTING: a quiet, suburban home.

CHARACTERS: MICHAEL, a teenage boy, wants to protect his family. RAYNA, his mother. Recently a robot.

SCENE ONE:

RAYNA

 (to audience)

There was a house fire here two weeks ago, on a Thursday. It began at 6:40 PM at the latest. It was contained to the kitchen. I was in the master bedroom at the back of the house. I had left the stove on without realizing. I had fallen asleep. The kitchen appliances have been fixed since then, but there is still some structural damage. Michael has worked hard to make everything good as new. (beat) No, Michael was at the library when it started. He studies all the time. At the library or in his room or at a friend’s house. Michael is very bright.

(Offstage MICHAEL hears his mother talking to someone and runs onstage.)

MICHAEL

Mom!

RAYNA

Michael?

(RAYNA shuts the door.)

MICHAEL

Who were you talking to?

RAYNA

The policeman, Michael. He was asking me questions.

(MICHAEL gasps and stares at her. RAYNA watches him passively.)

MICHAEL

What did he want to know?

RAYNA

About you, Michael.

(MICHAEL gulps.)

MICHAEL

Me?

(beat)

RAYNA

I don’t understand.

MICHAEL

Oh, uh, I mean: what did he want to know about me?

RAYNA

He wanted to know about why you haven’t been going to school, Michael.

MICHAEL

But what did you tell him?

RAYNA

I told him that there was a fire and that since then I have not gone to work and you have not gone to school.

MICHAEL

That’s it?

RAYNA

Yes, Michael.

MICHAEL

I mean, why was that it?

RAYNA

Because you called me, and I have to stop what I’m doing when you call me.

MICHAEL

Um, yeah. (beat) Is he still outside?

RAYNA

I don’t know, Michael.

(MICHAEL looks through a window.)

MICHAEL

(to himself) I don’t see anyone. (beat – remembers RAYNA) Well, I’m going to go back to my room. To study. (beat) Make me some dinner?

RAYNA

What would you like?

MICHAEL

Pasta.

RAYNA

By when should it be ready, Michael?

MICHAEL

Oh, just whenever you can.

RAYNA

Yes.

(Beat)

MICHAEL

Spin around.

(RAYNA spins in one circle.)

Jump up and down.

(RAYNA jumps once oddly, since she wasn’t built for jumping. MICHAEL laughs, honestly finding it funny. RAYNA watches passively. MICHAEL stops laughing abruptly.)

Laugh with me, when I laugh.

RAYNA

Yes, Michael.

(MICHAEL forces a laugh. RAYNA copies him. He brushes it off.)

MICHAEL

Well, I’m going to go to my room. (beat) Look, don’t worry about dinner. Just… why don’t you go to sleep?

RAYNA

Whatever you say. Good night, Michael. Sleep well.

(RAYNA lies flat on the couch with her hands folded over her stomach, like a corpse in a coffin. MICHAEL sits down on a nearby chair, and watches her for a moment. Then he picks up a notebook from under the chair. He opens it up and writes in it, reading out loud as he goes as if he were reading from a script.)

MICHAEL

Her motor and cognitive functions are all fine. So is her vocabulary. Her response time is improving. I don’t think the policeman would have suspected anything. He probably just thought she was weird.

A lot of her responses are just the default programming. There’s a huge list of basic information, like who the president is and what order the alphabet goes in and stuff. And then there’s more specific things: my name, my allergies, my GPA. Sometimes it’s weird, because I remember entering all the information. I remember sitting and watching her download it all, but I try not to think about that. It makes it all too creepy, like I’m talking to my- (self)

(MICHAEL crosses that last sentence out.)

It was a truancy officer that came here today, asking why I’d been ditching school. Two weeks now, I think. I can barely leave the house, except to pick up food. I keep reliving that day. (MICHAEL gets caught up in the memory, gradually panicking.) There was this horrible smell coming out of the kitchen window and it got so much worse when I walked in the front door. Smoke was pouring out of the kitchen and I almost couldn’t see her lying curled up on the floor. Smack on the ground, hands all mangled and crunched underneath her, underneath her- (Getting angry) God, it was so- She died like that! Greasy and crumpled up and that smell-

(MICHAEL calms himself.) We stay up all night watching Jeopardy and eat home-made pancakes. I wake up late, sometimes after noon and find pictures of us up all over the walls, all down the hallway. We dig out my old yearbooks. We’re doing things the way we used to, with less class time, but it’s the way things are supposed to be.  This robot, she makes everything right.

(MICHAEL looks up from the notebook and stares over at RAYNA.)

(Worried)

Right?

(MICHAEL stares at her for a long time. Blackout.)

SCENE TWO:

(The lights come up. MICHAEL has fallen asleep curled in the same chair, the notebook open on his lap. He looks a little more disheveled. RAYNA is still asleep on the couch. She wakes up after the lights come on.)

RAYNA

Good morning, Michael!

(MICHAEL jolts awake, snatches the notebook and holds it closed against his chest. He stares at RAYNA. He has just woken up from a horrible nightmare.)

Would you like some toast? Some cereal?

MICHAEL

No thanks.

RAYNA

French toast, Michael? Pancakes?

MICHAEL

No, I don’t want anything.

RAYNA

(As RAYNA says this she begins getting up and walking toward offstage.)

You should eat something, Michael. Your brain needs nutrients and energy to keep working. Brain cells require twice as much energy as any other cells in the body, Michael. I have to take care of you. I’ll get you some fruit, Michael. Fruit is made up of long chains of sugar molecules that the body breaks down gradually to release glucose to fuel the brain over a long period of time. You should have some, Michael.

MICHAEL

I had a nightmare.

(RAYNA stops and turns back to face him.)

RAYNA

I’m sorry, Michael. Would you like to tell me about it?

MICHAEL

There was this lady, this really sweet old lady, and she told me that she was pretty, and I guess she was pretty but not like that because, you know, among other things she was old and related to me.

(MICHAEL looks at RAYNA to see if she makes the connection. She doesn’t.)

Anyway, I reached up to touch her face, and her whole face started sizzling and then melted away, and underneath it was this crazy, wrinkled old lady and she hated me—

RAYNA

(RAYNA kneels by MICHAEL’S chair.)

No one could ever hate you, Michael.

MICHAEL

But this lady did. I- in the dream, I’d- I shoved a knife through her stomach, so far that I stuck her to the living room wall. And in the dream, I reached out and touched her face, her wrinkly old face, and the whole thing just slid off and right underneath it was mine! My face, staring straight back. And then you woke me up.

RAYNA

I’m sorry.

MICHAEL

But it was just a dream. I used to be so terrified when I woke up from nightmares, but I woke up and you were here, and you asked me if I wanted toast, and God, Mom, it was just a dream, wasn’t it? It was just a crazy nightmare!

(Off-stage, a knocking starts and continues to the end of the scene, as if someone was knocking continually on the door. MICHAEL freezes up and grips RAYNA’S wrist. RAYNA looks offstage toward the source of the knocking.)

RAYNA

I think someone’s at the door, Michael.

MICHAEL

I know.

RAYNA

Would you like me to go get the door?

MICHAEL

No.

(beat)

RAYNA

Would you like me to go get the door, Michael?

MICHAEL

No.

RAYNA

Would you like to temporarily override this response?

MICHAEL

(MICHAEL closes his eyes.)

Yes.

(They stay where they are: RAYNA kneeling next to MICHAEL, staring offstage, MICHAEL, eyes closed, sitting and gripping RAYNA’s wrist. The knocking continues. Blackout.)

SCENE THREE:

(The lights come up. MICHAEL is sitting hunched in the same chair. He looks even more disheveled. RAYNA is on the telephone, standing near the center of the stage. She does not pace as she talks.)

RAYNA

Yes, I know that Michael has not gone to school these past few days. He has been home with me. (beat) I’ve been ill.

(MICHAEL stands up and starts pacing.)

I’m not sure. He’ll come back when he’s able. He loves school. He’s very bright.

(MICHAEL slumps to the floor. RAYNA immediately hangs up the phone and puts it on the little end table. She kneels by MICHAEL.)

Are you all right, Michael?

MICHAEL

No, Mom.

RAYNA

You should have some food. You haven’t eaten much lately, Michael.

MICHAEL

I don’t want anything to eat.

RAYNA

What else can I get for you?

(beat)

MICHAEL

Mom?

RAYNA

Yes, Michael?

MICHAEL

Are you happy?

RAYNA

I’m with you.

MICHAEL

I know that, but are you happy? Here, with me.

RAYNA

Yes, of course, Michael. I love you.

MICHAEL

Well, why do you love me?

(beat – RAYNA is computing.)

RAYNA

I don’t understand, Michael.

MICHAEL

What?

RAYNA

I don’t understand the question.

MICHAEL

What about it don’t you understand?

(beat)

RAYNA

I don’t understand the question, Michael.

(beat)

MICHAEL

Mom?

RAYNA

Yes, Michael?

MICHAEL

I would like some food, actually. Some soup. Would you us make some? We could eat together.

RAYNA

I don’t need to eat.

MICHAEL

I know, but I want you to.

RAYNA

You told me I wasn’t supposed to eat, Michael. That it would be very bad for me.

MICHAEL

No… I mean, yeah, that’s what I said but I think that maybe now… I think maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. For you. For both of us.

RAYNA

Of course, Michael. Whatever you want.

MICHAEL

Thank you.

(RAYNA exits. MICHAEL stares after her for a moment. Then he picks up the phone and dials 911.)

Hello? My name is Michael Dougherty, and I understand someone has been coming by my house? Yeah, I figured it’d be about that. Look, actually this is about my mom. She’s been sick, since the fire, she got hurt, and… she’s just died, actually. This morning. (beat) I know. I know, I should have. (beat) Yes, send someone over.

(RAYNA comes back carrying two bowls with spoons in them.)

Wanna sit on the couch?

RAYNA

Yes, Michael.

(RAYNA and MICHAEL sit down facing each other. They eat their soup. MICHAEL watches her.)

MICHAEL

Mom?

RAYNA

Yes?

MICHAEL

Are you angry with me?

RAYNA

For what, Michael?

MICHAEL

For what I did to you. I think I destroyed you.

RAYNA

You could never hurt anyone. You could never do anything wrong, Michael.

MICHAEL

You used to say that. All the time. It was ridiculous back then, too

RAYNA

I don’t understand. You could never do anything wrong, Michael.

MICHAEL

No, I did.

RAYNA

Would you like to temporarily override this response?

MICHAEL

Yes.

(RAYNA suddenly freezes and drops her spoon.)

RAYNA

Experiencing technical failure.

MICHAEL

Power down.

RAYNA

Yes, Michael.

(RAYNA slumps and then lays back on the floor. MICHAEL stares at her for a moment, and rearranges her on the couch, just like how she was when she was sleeping in scene one. He folds her hands across her chest.)

MICHAEL

I loved you, too.

(A knocking starts up off stage.)

I’m coming.

(He exits.)

END OF PLAY