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A Coney Island State of Mind
Book Reading/Performance, Sunday, January 12

by Gaia Schilke

I've been a writer and a visual artist all my life. I did each alternately, one at a time, for years. Then in the 80s-90s in NYC I was doing both - a lot of visual work and a lot of poetry. I put my first book of illustrated poetry together in 1997, titled From the Margin. Some of those From the Margin poems are included in the second half of my new book.

I started writing poetry when I was young, nine years old. When I became involved in the spoken word community in New York in the 80s and 90s I started performing my poetry and publishing my work internationally. During that time I was curator of reading series at The Knitting Factory as well as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Also, together with the late, great professor Steve Cannon, I co-created the multicultural arts magazine A Gathering of the Tribes, now in its 15th year of publication.

At first I was terrified to share my most personal work on stage with an audience of intent listeners. After, when I sat down I felt naked. But that's when, no matter how scared I felt, I knew I'd done my best work. That is magic. To this day readings still scare me, but I do it anyway.

When I was in my 30s I learned to rollerblade - in Manhattan! And the truth is, if I had not learned to rollerblade in NYC I would never have gotten up in front of people and shared my poetry. In New York City, whenever you don't do something perfectly there are lots of folks around to point it out. It's a humbling experience. We forget the thing we learned as children: you fall down, you get back up; you fall down, you get back up. Learning how to rollerblade reminded me of that important lesson. Then, while I was rollerblading I would write poems in my head, like a song.

There are poems in my new collection from 30 years ago. There are poems I've written and rewritten over 30 years. And there are poems I wrote on my way out the door, in 20 minutes, which have remained unchanged. The first half of the book is made up of text poems with illustrations, and the second half of the book is illustrated poetry – apparently a pretty singular pursuit, as there was no category for that on Amazon.

The title of my book, A Coney Island State of Mind, came from the title of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poetry book, A Coney Island of the Mind. Ferlinghetti was one of my first poetic influences, along with E.E. Cummings, Emily Dickinson, and Leonard Cohen. A while back I learned that Ferlinghetti borrowed the title of his own book from a line in Henry Miller's novel Black Spring. Me and Henry, we go way back. My poem Henry Coney Island Miller in this collection is an imaginary conversation with this literary hero. (As my world opened to embrace women writers, the ranks of these heroes included heroines, like one of my first poetry teachers, Ntozake Shange, and the greatest poet of them all, Toni Morrison).

The title, A Coney Island State of Mind, has a lot of meaning in terms of my work. My book, and my life, is very much defined by my years in New York City. As much as I loved living in the East Village, I'd take the F train from there to Coney Island, just to get to the water. I've always needed to be near the coast. It was at Coney Island that I heard a theatrical version of Henry Miller's novel Black Spring, and wrote the first draft of "our" poem on the subway ride home.

In December I go out to Coney Island to see a play adapted from Henry Miller's novel Black Spring. And Henry's there all right, and after the play's over he and I go down to Nathan's, grab us a couple of dogs, and head back up the boardwalk to watch the sun set on a cold Sunday afternoon. And I say to him, "Henry, your play at Coney Island, it's an inspiration." And Henry smiles that conspiring smile of his as he leans towards me, his eyes like gleaming picks. "Baby," he says, "Coney Island is my middle name."

This poem includes words from Henry Miller's Black Spring.
 
 
Henry Coney Island Miller

At the sideshow by the seashore
With mirrors and magic tricks
And the slick under belly
Crooks its juicy finger

You want to eat fried things
You want to fight major spasms
In your gut
You want to move into
A hiding place for freaks
 
Henry Miller is not hiding
He wants to declare he is a traitor
Among traitors to the human race
And we look but we cannot bear it
Us whores and faggots and niggers
And cunts and kikes
We are all of us equal
In the waste and cruelty of our lives
 

I go with Henry
To his street of early sorrows
Where everything is shoddy
Thin as Pasteboard
A Coney Island of the mind

We all come here, finally,
And we live in those buildings
That cannot hold themselves erect
 
 
Henry asks: What is all this
That I never forgot
And now is no more?
 
He says: I was a lamb
They cut away everything that was mine
All that was sacred, private, taboo
And now the war is inside me
My broken rectum howls
 
He is the bruised red son
Going down on Coney Island
 
Henry Miller beats off
Into the bloody and wild night life
 
When this mad thing called sleep
Runs like an eight-day clock
All pain and dull and bearable
Like this

People often rightfully feel bored by poetry. I get it. But one thing I bring to my readings is performance. Spoken word is different from what other poets do because it has a theatrical element that gives the words resonance. I've always felt that I have to earn my time on stage, that it's not okay to take 20 minutes of people's time and bore them. I prepare, essential to any good performance. Friends who feel resistant to poetry have been surprised. When they finally come to hear me read, they felt entertained, they enjoyed poetry.

My illustrations & my poems have always been about the urgent need to say to others, 'Look', 'Listen.' I'm likely to show outrage, make jokes, express desire or fear the end of the world in my work. It feels essential especially now to make art that has real meaning and profundity. We need words that are comforting. We definitely need words that make us laugh. But we also need words that wake us up and remind us of what's important. After they've heard me read, I want people to leave feeling more alive - that's all I ask.

Legacy

The first time my grandfather saw my grandmother
He said, so the story goes
See that lady? I’m going to marry her
He knew right away about the pretty veneer
He did not know about the madness it contained
The package, you see, so lovely

I remember her as a wraith
Of isolation, religion and beauty
Restrained in a cold, sad home
Three times as a young mother she was hospitalized
Put away in an institute for the insane
In her eighties she confided to me
Those were the happiest times of her life
No children, no husband, no crowds
To serve but never sit down with

Just miles of solitude
A quiet, white pure space
To fill at leisure with words and music

Sometimes I feel that part of me
That is this grandmother
Longing to be put away
I cover my chest and turn
Look over my shoulder in fear
That there is a man looking at me
And clearing his throat to say
See that lady?

*****

Gaia will be reading poems from and celebrating the publication of
her new collection, A Coney Island State of Mind
now available on Amazon

Sunday, January 12, 4-6pm (reading starts at 5pm)
at Paprika on Ancha de San Antonio 9
All are welcome
Suggested donation $50
Info: ggaiamex@gmail.com

Learn more about Gaia and the event.

**************

Gaia Schilke grew up in Connecticut and lived in Manhattan for 20 years, Rhode Island for 10 years, and Costa Rica for 3 years before settling in San Miguel de Allende in 2016. Gaia was an art therapist and then a psychotherapist for 30 years, and maintains a small practice in San Miguel in addition to her work as a poet and visual artist. She lives in Col. San Antonio with her partner Collier Kear and their dog Sasha.

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