Der Harrisburg Maennerchor is located in the shadow of Pennsylvania's Capitol Building and is within a few blocks of Harrisburg's Restaurant Row, Riverfront Park, and City Island. Often called simply "The Maennerchor", the club is the oldest private social club within the city of Harrisburg. Founded in 1867 by men of primarily German descent, the club exists today to promote social and intellectual enjoyment amongst its members. – http://www.themaennerchor.com
I find something special about performing in The Cathedral Room at Der Maennerchor in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I can never spell it properly without first looking it up and it took me several attempts
to pronounce it correctly (der man-ah-core) before I could properly tell folk where I was performing but despite those miniscule setbacks I must tell you I’ve experienced some magical moments featuring at this venue. It is truly one of the best kept secrets in Midtown.
Friday night I had to circle the block a few times to find a decent parking spot (one way streets, no parking here to corner and fire hydrants run amok in Midtown). I managed to find a spot fairly close by. Checking the Blackberry clock I’m thinking “I just made it under the gun.” I am run walking in six inch platforms while balancing a music stand, folder full of brand new poetry, my purse and Blackberry (which never makes it into the purse – too much of a hassle to dig it out). When I reach the front of the venue I hear the sensual moan of sax. Read that back – I said sax, as in saxophone.
I wobble up the stairs scan the room quickly locating an empty seat. Hastily dropping my parcel, I can feel the beginning stages of sweat coming on. Normally I wouldn’t be bothered by that, but last month I took a fearless leap and laid my afro down. What once resembled the beauty of a Yew tree now laid gingerly on my shoulders, almost in a sigh. My hair, however, is still very thick and it can feel like I’m wearing a light scarf about my neck & shoulders when it’s humid.
While pantomiming to the bartender for a glass of ice water I notice a fellow poetic friend of mine sitting at the end of the bar. Collecting my belongings from the first table I happily set up shop with him. He is a true poet and poetry lover who has supported me since the first time we met. We share the distinction of being two of the original “St. Moritz” poets of the past. The last time we saw each other was a few weeks prior when we shared a classroom at Central Penn Business College. I always enjoy being in his company as he is one of the few people I know who has no intentions behind his friendship. My Blackberry vibrates, alerting me of an incoming message. My thumbs fly quickly over the letters on the touch screen keyboard assuring my messenger buddy of a saved seat upon his arrival.
Jonathan Ragonese is on stage and I am transfixed by the melody. I love the saxophone. I believe the saxophone and trumpet are two of the sexiest instruments in the lot. Give me a violin and an upright bass and I’m peeling off clothes quicker than notes can play, but typically not in public. Typically.
This night is a tad nerve-racking for me because not only am I debuting new poems, I am also free styling with new musicians. We’ve never met, let alone rehearsed together. On top of that I am quite aware of the “why poetry & jazz” debate which some purist lovers of Jazz wage. I sat there wondering how many people I would run out the room once I started reciting. Experience told me at least two people would bounce as soon as they had a break.
“Ladies and Gentlemen” Jonathan began “at this time please welcome special guest Iya Isoke.”
I know they are applauding. But it never quite registers.
Walking to the stage area I lose performance fear because there, beneath the lights something always overcomes me. I get an acute sensation of nerves, my heart beat is elevated, I can sometimes hear blood pushing against the pulse in my eardrums and I love it.
To look at an expectant audience, I become giddy inside knowing they have no idea what is about to hit them, to know no matter how nervous I may be; they are way more unprepared than I’ll ever be. Writing is my talent. Communication is my life. I never write for an audience. I write to survive this life and all that occurs within the confines of it. I openly share the intimate details of my life. It’s not typical for a poet to creatively crawl through shards of shattered glass backed by a soundtrack of jazz; both voice & music poured down an exquisitely effective emotional drain.
I love my nerves and my doubt. I love my little person inside who pushes me to the microphone.I pull up the music stand and open my mouth to speak.
I am home.
Into the last piece of the first set my peripherals sight the friend I was waiting on as he walks in. He made his way to the back where he knew I’d saved him a seat. I finished the set intending to make a bee line to meet with him but was stopped more than a few times by patrons who wanted to speak with me.
The thing I love about performing at Der Harrisburg Maennerchor, aside from the art house feel and outstanding acoustics, is the appreciative audience. They are beyond the customary “great job” pat on the back folk. They “get” it. They listen and they absorb with their entire being.
A majority of the people I spoke with would quote from the various pieces I shared. “She’ll never run carefree in the spirit of her own backyard” “You got me with that.” “kNOw Beloved” “I remember reading about that incident, then I forgot about it, but you wrote in a way that makes people see beyond the crime.”
An elderly gentleman with his arm in a sling told me I reminded him of his days listening to poetry in the 50’s. He didn’t know what to expect coming in and he was happy he’d made it out.
Shaking hands I manage to say “thank you, I truly appreciate it” to each compliment.
Welcome hugs are exchanged and small talk is made when I finally make it to my seat. Although pleased to have the support of a good friend who effortlessly settles my spirits, he has his work cut out for him on this night. I’m high on music and poetry but there is nervousness beneath my confidence.
Breaking in brand new poetry causes me pause at times. I do this because it is my calling; no one ever explains that just because you know the calling, doesn’t mean it becomes easy.
A couple walk by looking for seating. It’s an impossible feat at this point. There is an empty chair next to me. I motion for the woman to sit down and whisper to her that her husband can have my seat when I perform. She smiles widely and says “Thank you!” They settle in next to us.
My friend knows I drink Grand Marnier but the bar doesn’t have it so he brings me my second joy, Red wine. He handed me the wine – in a disposable plastic cup – and after the initial bourgeois reaction to seeing Red wine in a plastic cup (I believe I turned and asked him if it came with a bendy straw and a box of animal crackers) I relaxed after he pointed out every drink was being served in plastic cups. His jokes about the bourgeois revolutionary poet oxymoron broke through my field and my laughter allowed me to focus more on company, music and less on the poems.
“Ladies and Gentlemen” Jonathan announced “welcome back Iya Isoke.”
When I do a feature, I never really know what order I will share the work. But as I walked back to the stage I had an epiphany. In my head, I knew what I had written. I visualized a crescent moon of progress which had been my life in the last year. And that was the story I could share.
I open my mouth to speak.
“A little over a year ago my life changed drastically and forever, tonight I’m going to take you on a journey of healing. Is that alright?”
The response from the crowd was musical. Behind me I hear the call of a saxophone, beat of a bass, and I begin clicking my heels together against the prose of life.
In the middle of a new poem I began singing. The melody originated from a creative spark emanating in the room. The words I had written and only experienced through a keyboard within the quiet confines of my house were now vibrating and pinging my spirit.
Sometimes when I write the thought is so free I don’t always catch the subtle nuances until it is spoken aloud. “I am not the same” I recited. “I am not the same” I repeated “I am not the same” I understood. “I am not the same” I sang.
stupor of evening
into my home–
friend now foe,
comes father time
watch he can’t rewind…
“I get through my journey with Grand Marnier,” I quipped at one point “How do you get through yours?”
A woman’s laugh reached the stage making me smile.
“Thank you all for your time.” I leave the stage.
The people who walk up the stairs and step into the Cathedral Room at der Maennerchor already live art, poetry, jazz. They openly receive creativity on all levels. Whether I deliver beatnik gritty or Shakespearean cerebral pieces the appreciation is overwhelming.
They “get” it.
A steady stream of people approached me with “great job” “beautiful” “loved it” “thank you for sharing” I was overwhelmed with an amalgamation of accolades. These were peers who have never heard me, strangers who never knew me.
One patron walked up to me and laughed saying “I love the Grand Marnier comment, that’s my drink! I’m going to buy you one!” The bartender told her he didn’t have it and she laughed and said “ok – next time I come see you perform I will buy you one!”
I could feel everyone’s sincerity but the poignant moment of the evening for me was the woman who sat next to us earlier.She leaned over to me and said “I lost my husband of 20 years two years ago. Your poetry touched me so deeply, it was like you pulled my thoughts out my head, and although I could never write like that – I understand. I truly understand. I thought I’d never love again.” She touched her hand to her heart. Nodded her head then said “and then I found him” indicating the man who escorted her to Der Maennerchor for jazz and poetry on a whim. “You will come full circle, I promise.”
I wish I had a number of magical creative poetic ways to say “thank you” especially when complimented by a person who is visibly moved by what they’ve just experienced. But I don’t. I only have “thank you” but if you could look inside the spirit of my heart you would see tears of gratitude falling freely for every person who takes my hand, looks in my eyes and has trouble articulating what my words have done for them.
We struggle in word together.
While I was listening to Jonathan Ragonese close out the evening I felt a tap on my shoulder and beside me was the man who invited me to perform standing there with a real Brandy glass filled with a healthy splash of Grand Marnier.
I may not have come full circle yet but the crescent moon of progressive movement is shining on me.
What a night to remember!
Iya Isoke © 6/2011