By ELLIOT WEISS
This post was written as an assignment for Professor Cindy Shearer’s CIA 7091: MFA Interdisciplinary Arts Workshop. As part of a community of artists working across art perspectives, students in this course get the chance to present their work and teach each other about their art form(s), practice, lineage and influences, and are challenged to inquire into the interdisciplinary arts as well as forms new to them.
This is a blog about Risk for Reward. This was an assignment for class; however, its importance is far reaching. In my case, taking advantage of the opportunity presented by a risk when I was in my late 20s gave me confidence in myself and belief in my art (poetry). The risk of performing at an open mic and taking that risk (with help) was the starting point of my life as an artist. The confidence I gained from that event is part of my being today. I can always recall this event whenever I feel any self-doubt.
As a young teen I read a weekly newspaper, The Village Voice. In addition to the abundant music and arts section, the Voice also published an article that helped the Weiss clan win the war with roaches. The article explained how boric acid was the answer as it sent both the roaches and their offspring to the Roach Motels Burial Grounds. We had a roach colony that you would see covering the kitchen table during the night. Also in the Voice was an ad posted religiously about the Back Fence. The Back Fence, located on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village promoted musical acts and an open mic every Sunday afternoon. Odetta, Bob Dylan, and Richie Havens are a few of the artists that performed at the Back Fence. As a teen I day dreamed about performing. I would listen to music, particularly Doo Wop, and imagine that I was singing onstage with the group.
In 1982 I wrote my first poem, “Junky.” I asked a friend to read it and his reaction was positive (Risk for Reward Pt.1.) Then I remembered the ad for the Back Fence. One Sunday I put the folded up poem in my inside jacket pocket with no intentions of reading it and headed down to the Village. While I was sitting and waiting for the open mic to begin a woman came in and sat next to me, and we introduced ourselves. Her name was Lorraine Galiper. She was originally from the Caribbean and living and working as a teacher in Spanish Harlem. She also had a young daughter still residing in the Caribbean with her mother. Lorraine asked me if I was going to read and I said that I wasn’t. I asked her if she was reading and she told me that she was the featured poet. This meant that she had 15 minutes as the feature.
While we were talking I took a risk and asked her if she wouldn’t mind reading my poem (Risk for Reward Pt.2). "Sure, I’ll read it,” she said, and I took it out of my inside pocket and handed it to her. She liked it, said it was intense, and urged me to get up and read it when the emcee called for volunteers. I said that I wasn’t sure. The open mic began with a few poets reading their poems, then Lorraine took the stage. She read for 15 minutes, and when she came off the stage she asked me what I thought. I told her that I had a clear picture of her home in the Caribbean and of her separation from her daughter.
Risk for reward part 3: Remember that Lorraine and I were sitting side by side? The emcee asked if there was anyone else that would like to read, and the next thing I knew, my hand was up in the air with Lorraine’s hand on top of mine. We smiled and were laughing with each other—and I took the risk. It was great. The audience responded strongly, and taking this Risk for Reward jumpstarted my involvement as an artist/performance poet/writer/actor/bass guitarist, and eventually, as an MFA Student at CIIS. Lorraine and I had a supportive relationship for a while. I retell this story in my one man show and dedicate an original poem, “Your Smile,” to Lorraine.