A Performance Note: the Rip-Up Reading

About 17 years ago (as near as I can recall — sometime in late 1999 or early 2000) I did a reading in Worcester, MA that started as a kind of artistic challenge and turned into something much larger, at least for me.

The concept: do a feature that consisted of a set of poems that would only be read once and never again. Seemed simple enough at first, But as I worked on the set for that first feature, I began to learn something about the nature of what we do as poets and the idea began to expand.

It became something I call a “rip up reading.” After it was done, I didn’t think I’d ever do it again.
In 2009, I did it again in Manchester, NH.
Last night I did it for what I am pretty sure will be the last time ever in Portland, ME, for a gathering of storytellers.

The Format:

Keep the nature of the show secret. Don’t share the poems with anyone, or the nature of the show itself with anyone but the host prior to the show. Nothing online, no workshopping — nothing. 

Write the set. This takes a while, because if you’re going to do this, you need to have poems that you have a significant amount of blood and investment in — they have to be at least good, and hopefully it’s the best work you’re capable of. In all three cases, it was a set of eight or nine poems. Already, I don’t recall for sure. Age has made the porosity of my memory worse than ever; usually a curse, in this case a blessing.

Before the feature, print one copy of the set, then wipe out the file for it on the computer, so there’s only one copy of the poems in existence.
At the start of the show, ask for everyone in attendance to shut off anything they can use to make a record of the performance. Cameras, cell phones, video, etc. Gotta keep up with the technology. There was some sketching last night, but I let that slide; no good reason, just felt somehow OK.

Ask for an audience member to volunteer to help you during the set. Don’t explain why, but assure them they don’t have to do anything on stage; they just need to sit up front.

Explain what you’re doing (I’ll explain the rationale below in more detail) — that you’ll be reading a set of poems that no one’s ever seen or heard before, or will again. The set last night addressed the political moment — but more in a sense of the spiritual aspects of the moment. I’ll not say more than that about it.
In all three cases, I opened and closed the set with poems that didn’t fit the bill, as a way of ritually easing in and out of the actual rip-up set. Last night I opened with the poem “Our Dragon” that appears in the “Trumped” anthology, and closed with “Radioactive Artist,” an oldie that just seemed to fit (and felt timely as it references the Hanford Reservation, site of the recent nuclear waste accident).
Explain the volunteer’s role — that as each poem is completed, the volunteer rips the copy of the poem into tiny pieces and puts them into some receptacle — a bag or an envelope (last night, a Ziploc bag) . At the end of the night, the host gets the ripped up copies to do anything with that they want — as long as they don’t reassemble the poems.
Explain, very briefly, the rationale as given below. I use an Ani Difranco quote to help make the point, from “Fuel:” “People / used to make records / as in the record / of an event / The event / of people / making music /in a room.” It’s a way of introducing the idea that the event is precious, the moment is precious. I don’t go into huge detail.

Do the feature.

Last night, we actually did a Q & A with the audience afterward. Never did that before. Most of what we discussed is covered below.

Collapse internally if you’ve done it right.

The Rationale:

The rationale behind the rip up reading is two fold.
First and foremost, it is to create a heightened, ritualized sense of the fundamentally ephemeral nature of a live performance. (Hence, the secrecy beforehand and the volunteer, the no recording, etc. It’s a ritual process and requires ritual boundaries to work.) To emphasize that these moments between poet and audience are irreproducible, and that no amount of chapbook reading, video viewing, or listening to a recording can truly recapture what happens in the moment of the night, and that we need to seize the moment and give it our attention — and that goes for performer and audience.

Second, it’s to illustrate the importance of being willing to bring it all out there and then leave it all onstage — both for poet and audience. By its very nature, if you want to do this right, you have to deliver a set of work that has blood in it — personal, revealing work that stretches your own boundaries as writer and as performer. If you’re going to do this, you can’t bring weak shit up there to be destroyed. It has to hurt you to see it go, or letting it go means nothing at all. The audience needs to recognize that hurt in you without pitying you — a fine line to walk.

Why did I include poems that weren’t destined to be ripped up in both cases? To create an entrance out of and an exit back into the “real world” outside the ritualized space of the night. To give people something to hang onto in a more tangible way than just in their heads. Touchstones. Beyond that…let’s just say it seemed like the right way to do it. Not everything is subject to rational thought.

The introduction and explanation garnered gasps and shock.

You could hear a pin drop in the room as each poem began. No chatter during the poems. Total attention to the moment.

Afterwards…gratitude. That was the big one. Anger, too…in some cases. Not a bad anger, just a “oh, God, don’t rip that one up!!!!” now and again. But it wasn’t a deep anger, more a frustration at having the pieces disappear into the ether.

A audience of storytellers, versus poets, lent a different flavor to it (part of why I did it there). Less anger, more appreciation. Hard to explain. (Also, a much older audience than ever before — average age was probably closer to 60; the other two readings were the usual, younger poetry crowd.)

And then it was done. And now, we all move on…

Thanks to all who participated in this.

I am deeply, deeply grateful to the Maine Organization Of Storytelling Enthusiasts (MOOSE) for asking me into their space to do this.


I was

in chronic pain
from the blistering

of those 
I admired
and longed
to befriend,

until one day
I passed beyond caring
for such things, 
laid down
and slept 
still alone and

woke to find

I’d become 
a gem, uncut
by other hands
yet faceted nonetheless

the process
of loneliness
curing into


and thus transformed

sought after,

what I had once longed for
and what I no longer

to be.

Rocks In The Rain

Rocks falling
in the rain:

wounding pebbles
ticking into me,
killing boulders
looming not far behind.

Reading the news

feels like that most days,
like the air itself
is getting harder
and more dangerous.

There are those who say
we should all get inside
and stay out of this
if  we know it’s going
to kill us. For me at least,

I think not.
I think

if I’m going to die
of something
let it be from 
such steady stoning
as long as

I’m trying to stop it
from happening
to anyone else

in such a mean time
as this.

Event coming up…

On Wednesday night, May 10, I’ll be performing a special set of my work for the Maine Organization Of Storytelling Enthusiasts (MOOSE — get it?) at the Portland, ME Public Library.  The event will run from 7-9 PM and will be in the main branch at 5 Monument Square.  

If you are a regular reader of my work here, I’d love to see and meet you there.  I promise I’ve got something special planned and I hope that if you can be there, you’ll leave saying that you experienced something unique and worthwhile.

Looking forward to Wednesday!

Leftover Hope

If I am to be 
one hundred per cent honest,
I have little hope
of anything for myself.

As often as I suggest
to others that there
is hope to seize
if one seeks it,

I do not seek
for much beyond 
what keeps me together
each day from 

moment to moment —
sometimes each moment
stretching to an hour, sometimes
shrinking to swift-changing

seconds of certainty that
then turn to doubt. I see
so much in me that is
weak and helpless when faced

with the work that needs doing
on myself, my loved ones,
my city, my nation, my people,
my world. So little time

ahead; so little energy stored within;
so much agony in the way
of stepping to it, and so much 
guilt at being forever in my own way.  

Keeping it one hundred per cent:
hope is not a commodity 
I am willing to spend

to repair this wretched scaffolding.

I leave it in
the hands of those
who will not squander it, or
those I hope will not squander it.

It’s all I’ve got, really; the leftover hope
that I will be of some small use 
to someone who is 
of more use than I have ever been.

And They Said

I was a moody child
and they said I’d grow out of it
I was a moody teen
and they said it was normal
I was a troubled young adult
and they said it might be a problem
Truth was
I felt from birth that I’d swallowed a dragon
and all they said was that I needed to buckle down
Later on
I could feel the dragon growing huge in me
and they said I needed to “man up” somehow
Of course
I began to sample all their pills to kill the dragon
and they said prescribing was an art not a science
In addition
I talked about it incessantly in offices to chase it out
and they said it was a slow process
All the time
I kept bouncing from dragon love to dragon rage within
and they said don’t worry it smooths out after you hit 40
As 40 approached
I felt the hollow of the cavern the dragon had gnawed out of me
and they said there are some cases that are just stubborn
As 40 passed 
I felt now and again pure flame spouting through my pores
and they said there’s a chance you are one of the unlucky ones
As 45 passed
I had a moment where I thought the dragon was gone
and they said you seem happy
As happy passed
I pulled and tugged on the dragon to make it go
and they said oh come on grow up this again
Now is the moment
I assume I am mostly dragon now
and they shrugged and said we’ve got nothing
and they said you’re a shell full of monster
and they said if only there were still swords and heroes
and they said are you even listening
and they said
and they said
and they said


To begin
make a study
of plain and ornate
Of how the former
becomes the latter
and of how the former
houses the clean
and the latter
invites the filth

see how his words
emerge from his gut
how his face
shifts in their rhythm
how he begins
to turn from one lie to another
how he ends
all thought at the utterance of each

See his ornate fumble
through language
filthy with syllables
and grime
See his disdain
of plain

there was a child here
and a parent and
perhaps a lover
but plain speaking 
says no more
This is no more

In rococo twists
of tongue and style
something wicked now hides
in less than plain sight
just as the crannies of
gilded rooms with
their deep carved cornices
and intricate curls of decor
may conceal 
long-dormant plagues

Listen long enough
and become
Look long enough
and become
Sit with it long enough
and become
resigned or
enraged enough
to tear this
all the way back

to plain

What It Will Take


Not words, as they know what to do with those: no listening, no answers, no acknowledgment that anything of value has been said; when you own the definitions you do with words whatever you want and they’ve spent culture and treasure on gobbling them up.

Not marches as they simply set a frame around them, a proscenium, a monumental arch; they’ll call them theater, showpieces, paid spectacles of acting out; in extraordinary cases they will call them war and blow them down as soon as they look like they might catch on.

Not votes as they see every last one as an impending joke with the punchlines in waiting years away in the desert of the future where they’re already been paid for on the installment plan.

It won’t take words or marches or votes. It won’t take shame or mockery or public scrutiny.


It will take pain.

A willingness
to bring pain that they have never felt,
an ability
to offer and then provide pain,
to pull back once an aim is achieved.


we can wash up and then
lie awake and imagine ourselves
pure again, 
sweet as Spring,
generous and forgiving as
any river ever

that broke its banks
when overfull, raging
with the runoff from
a winter’s worth
of cruel snow

and then returned
to its bed to roll on,
steady and calm
in its knowledge
of its power,
to the peace of the sea.

Our Own Light

When they take us
in the night, when they
slip into our beds with us
and rob us of our right
to our desires, when
they carve our beings
from us and leave us
as husks, as remains,

we will have to be our own light.

When they sniff at the sick
and smell what they call
justified pain, when they
seize our bodies to pay the debt
for their own satisfaction, 
when they buy bullets with 
what could have bought 
our own healthy returns to 
our own healthy lives,

we will have to be our own light.

When they come in killer walls
of camo and blue to take our water
and foul it for the joy of cash heaps,
when they step in grand cadence
to darken our streets with metal and fear
while we cower in homes they long to burn,
when they raze the schools overseas with bombs
and raze the schools in our towns with illogic and lies,
then drag our children from everywhere
into prison,
into servitude,
into battle,
into death,
into worldwide shadow,

we will have to be our own light.

We will have to remember
who we are,
what we can do, 
who we refuse to become,
what we refuse to do.

We will have to be
in their eyes
will have to be our own light,

illuminating each other’s way, even
if need be learning to start
fires, with 
each torch igniting another
until their darkness either
fails before us
or is left behind
for all time.


from my lineage;
from there too.

What made me
deflated me.
What made me
blew me back up.

I awake in a room
built of frowns and guilt
where I still lay myself down
to sleep and heal.

It damned me,
or rather, it taught me
to damn myself.
It also taught me

how to fight
with and for
the tooth and nail
I was born with. So

when you tell me
it shouldn’t matter
as if your lineage
doesn’t matter to you,

you who wants so badly
for me to hand you
the prettiest parts of mine
to dress up your own

while pressing me to be
a little more like you
in order to wash all I am 
into a great lukewarm bath

of beige you call
civility, society,
normal — when you tell me

I look back at
what made me
the mess I am,
the bite and blow

of day to day,
and then I look 
at you. Your lineage
betrays you

even as mine,
for all its stabby 
hold on me, stays faithful.
Stands behind me.

Tragedy is my bloodroot.
Recovery is too.
You cannot hurt me more
than I have hurt myself

in trying to heal myself.
In my poison is my safety.
In your eyes I see
no understanding

of how that can be.
Someone in your lineage
may have known that once
but you have forgotten.

That is how I win.

Speaking Of Horror

Speaking of horror
there’s a
huge Dodge truck
parked at the donut shop
I’m about to go into
and it’s flying both
an American flag and 
a Confederate flag
each one the size of
a comforter or 
opened body bag and
it’s Spring

Speaking of 
horror that is as
a way of saying
something moving
in the dispassionate moment
of how matter of factly
those flags fly together

Speaking of horror
my body is hollering
stay out of there

Horror is how easily I lose
my usual donut appetite

In fact I don’t even
want a coffee

I know I could likely walk in 
with impunity
and buy my usual
with impunity
and recognize the person
who owns that truck 
and stare at them
with impunity in fact
they might nod to me if
we passed through the glass doors
at the same time in 
opposite directions

I don’t want to park
where horror lives
so I drive around the block to 
another donut shop

but it’s Spring and
in keeping with Spring
and speaking of horror

I really have lost all desire
for the usual

Small Desire

All you really want
is to be touched.

Listening to someone;
feeling the air move
when they move;

not enough.

Let the familiar, the unexpected but
welcome hand come
to rest on your shoulder;

it’s enough. 

Let yourself
be spooned, even for
a moment, while half-
asleep and half-weeping,
face turned to the wall
in a dark room;

it’s enough.

You would like 
more of course:

someone listening; someone
to stir your skin, 
to be present
in all your spaces;

but a hand on your hair,
unheralded, asking for nothing
other than to offer itself?


After A Defeat

after losing a thick-armed struggle
with others gleefully unlike me

I am overthrown and then
as I am laid out by blows

upon dirt and scrub lawn
I stare up at sky of bruise-hue

in early dusk and imagine
I will rise at first slit of sun

on horizon 
this view is called hope and

is a bane of those
with whom I struggle 

their thick arms no match
for that sliver of sun

which prompted a belief
of potential resurgence

in a beaten skull
and soul

A Theological Debate

You manage to wring
a mystical message
out of mishearing 
the lyrics of a Kid Rock song
and then expect me
to nod in agreement when
you present the mistake
as evidence of God’s finger
in all things. I point out
that all it shows is that somehow
we make things work 
even when they don’t because
we long for there to be an Order
to this mess so we cobble one up
from any weak leather and scrap nails
we are given.  “Isn’t that
the same thing, really?” you ask,
and while it’s hard, perhaps
impossible, to entirely reject
your defense of such 
accidental revelations? Dude.
In the name of all
that’s potentially holy,
try to remember:

we’re talking about Kid Rock.

How To Be An Aging Poet

This voice is getting old
as are the lungs that drive it.

I want it to come alive with roses
firing from my tongue and 
seem to spit nothing
but autumn leaves. 

Do you feel any softness
or new growth 
in anything I say?
In fact, I’m likely reaching a point

of speaking nothing but stone talk.
I don’t know yet
if these will be sling stones shaped
to fly at Goliath, or gravestones seeking
a hole to mark, newly-turned earth
in which to settle.

I’m resigned to how little
those who follow
may be able to do with what
I am beginning to say. Not like
I’ll be offering obvious
building blocks,

nothing shaped like
a foundation. I feel already

they’ll sit there in front of you
and look like obstacles or
late-life mistakes.

Maybe that’s all I’ll be 

object lesson on overstaying
time. Ossified while longing
to still be fluid. 


Waiting to crumble.