Let’s get something out of the way: I find poetry readings rather silly. To me, they inevitably involve one or all of the following archetypes: The woman using that oh-so-poetry-reading cadence while talking metaphorically about her vagina; the artsy girl dressed all in black, rattling off her diary musings at machine-gun speeds while shouting the dirty words; the crazy-old-poet guy wearing shorts when its 30 degrees outside. Ugh. But I am a big fan of the Deftones, so it was with trepidation and an open-as-I-could-muster mind that I headed out to Luna’s Café in Midtown last week for an open-mic poetry reading featuring bassist Chi Cheng and local poet Donald Sydney-Fryer.
With room for about 50 to 60, and a bona fide rock star in attendance, filling the place up was no trouble. At first it was hard to tell who was there for the poetry and who just to stargaze, but the small flock of young hipster types conveniently stepping outside for a cigarette within seconds of Chi doing the same cleared that right up.
Enthusiasm waned early when the first three open mic-ers fit my preconceived notions to a T. The artsy girl even had a tall man in a trench coat accompanying her on a didgeridoo. This musical addition prompted Cheng to nod his head with approval; me, I had to cover my mouth to hide the giggling. But by the time Donald Sydney-Fryer, an intellectual to the umpteenth degree, took to the stage, it was easy to see who the real pros were. I found myself digging Sydney-Fryer’s personal style as, impressively, he related about half an hour’s worth of poetry from memory (someone hadn’t shown up with his book). “Reading” works both original and borrowed, he discussed Plato, history, language and more in between poems.
Next, Cheng took the makeshift stage. Humorous, soft-spoken, and humble, he was just what you’d expect from looking at him. But just so no one would forget he was a rock star, Cheng occasionally took it upon himself to point out how drunk he was in between chugs straight from the vino bottle.
The musician’s work was starkly different, and thus the highlight of the evening for me. His poems were read in a naturalistic, lazy drawl, forgoing aspirations toward any of the hallmarks of the poetry-reading vibe. With a dark sensibility, many of the story-like poems were drawn directly from Cheng’s personal experiences. Although I found myself semi-unconsciously hurrying out after his half-hour-long reading ended and before the open mic resumed, I still couldn’t help thinking that maybe Chi Cheng had managed to change my mind about poetry readings. OK, maybe not, since my favorite parts of the night, all told, were the tasty nachos and Sydney-Fryer’s T-shirt, which read “W.W.C.D: What Would Cthulhu do?” Ah well, you can lead a horse to water …