A Poet on the Road

February 17, 2008 | 1 5 min read

Jon Sands is a poet residing in New York City. A Cincinnati native, Sands was a finalist at the 2007 National Poetry Slam. He is currently touring across North America. Sands used to write poems on the bellies of his cabbage patch dolls, and he still does. More about Jon and his poetry CDs and chapbooks is available here.

coverA regular day, for our purposes, we can call it a Tuesday

Morning: First I wake up, which usually consists of a bit of an eye flutter, then piecing together whose couch I’ve just been sleeping on. This takes longer than you might imagine because it seems that (and I’ve never scientifically confirmed this) when your surroundings are constantly changing, your dreams go from crazy to “manic+crazy.” When it is a good dream, I cure cancer or become poet laureate of the Milky Way. When it is a bad dream, inevitably, monsters eat my spleen or someone has died. I had a dream a few nights ago that I had killed a man. It was the aftermath of the event (police handcuffs, my mother’s face, the moment you know your life will never be the same). I should say, I don’t murder people, which makes nightmares like this one all the more disturbing. So my surroundings are pieced together – more often than not – it is the house or apartment of a wonderful person who has volunteered their couch to a traveling artist. I cannot emphasize the importance of these people enough. Without friends (or acquaintances or the person you just met at the bookstore) who put up their houses, the majority of our nation’s touring artists would not be able to travel the way they do. If I am lucky (which sometimes I am not) I’m able to grab a piece of toast or something that has been toasted before I go off to town.

How I got here: I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, a child of the Midwest. I moved to New York City in 2006 as a response to the feeling in my stomach and loins (mostly my stomach) that I am good at writing and performing poetry. For a few months, I was swallowed by a city that has stomached more than a few of the bright and ambitious. I resurfaced in April of 2007 when I won a Poetry Slam (a performance poetry competition) at LouderARTS-New York City. This put me in a series of semi-finals and ultimately finals that determined which 5 poets in a sea of thousands would represent this prominent venue at the 2007 National Poetry Slam in Austin, TX. When the smoke cleared, this little boy with a big voice from the Midwest was joined by four of his heroes (Rachel McKibbens, Roger Bonair-Agard, John “Survivor” Blake, and Oveous Maximus. Team LouderARTS-NYC went on to place 3rd at the 2007 National Poetry Slam (a competition of some 80 teams throughout the country). From there, in a short time span I was able to transition to a full time paid touring artist. This is now day number 47 of my North American “Being Human Being” winter tour.

Daytime: The work I get paid for generally happens at night. This means I have full days off in new cities. As it happens, inexplicably my body has an undeniable tractor-beam-like pull towards the hippiest, organic-est coffee shop in town. So I go, I eat something, I drink LOADS of coffee and generally write the majority of my poems in said environment, and if we’re being perfectly honest I also waste more hours than I wish to admit on websites like myspace.com (black holes for hours of your time. I swear, I log onto the Internet with the sole purpose of posting a new show on my online calendar and 2 hours later I’m reading all about the movie interests of some girl I haven’t seen since the third grade… It’s disgusting). Many of the days on the road are completely variable though, depending on where you are. When I was in Hawaii for instance, the hippie-coffee-shop-work time took a big hit in favor of the climb-volcanoes-and-surf time. This is tricky because the only way to do this job successfully is to realize that if you do not put in the necessary hours (many many hours) to continue to create the art you make, then eventually, no one will pay you to make it any longer (and in my more frantic states, it generally follows that you will die a sad-washed-up-confused-lonely person, unloved and forgotten, though I’m sure the straits aren’t quite that dire). There is a genuine fear that somehow inexplicably you will stop creating, and for the best I’ve talked to, this is one thing that drives them each day to pick up their instrument of choice, the idea that today will not be the day I fall off, will not be the day my mind runs dry. I try and envision the untouched corners of poetry I have not scratched and then (sometimes blindly) go searching for them. Suffice to say, the balance between experiencing the places through which you are traveling and maintaining an efficient discipline with your work is not always the easiest task when your surroundings change daily, and you have the attention span of a baby giraffe.

Nighttime: As it stands now, my tour is divided into three different types of gigs: 1) Colleges and Universities 2) Showcases & 3) Open-Mic/Poetry-Slam features. The ratio between these three certainly varies depending on which poet you talk to, but I would say half of the gigs I do fall under the third category. This is when a poetry slam or open mic pays you to come to their venue and do a 15-30 minute set. These venues are all over the country. You may not know it, but just around the corner I’m sure someone is reading a poem on any number of topics to anywhere from 15-1,000 people. To say these venues are variable is the understatement of the universe. Now I should say, spaces where people can share the work they’ve created, regardless of what that work is, are an essential part of any artistic community. Great communities seemingly create better work and a greater understanding of how you fit into the world in which you live. That said, you never know what you will find when you walk into an open-mic venue. In one, venue I saw a woman face a crowd filled with hundreds of raucous poetry slam enthusiasts with a genuine portrayal of her struggle to find religion (or Christianity) coming out of a house with very liberal agnostic parents (the quote that stuck the most was “sure honey, whatever helps you be less of a slut”). Needless to say, I had always felt this particular offset of ideas would be the other way around, and I am always pleasantly surprised when a room full of people gets led down a path that displays a perspective they were not previously aware of. That said, in one venue, I got to sit through a four minute a capella version of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” sung off key and off paper (and to my utmost surprise, without a hint of irony) by a teenager expressing his right to free speech. The lows have a tendency to get pretty low. At some point in time during the night the organizers bring me on stage for a set which looks something like this. Every night, without doubt, before I go on stage I find a large cup of coffee and a dark corner. I have taken to placing my hand on my heart and thanking whatever is out there that I have the opportunity to speak. When you tour (especially if you’re not U2, or Beck, or The Rolling Stones), every gig takes on the mental work of a job interview because you never know who is watching. Many times you are the only person in the room who you have known for more than a few hours, which in some ways makes it easier to be swallowed by your work. My life is then funded both by the money from the event organizers and colleges, as well as the sale of both chapbooks (smaller publications of one’s most recent poetry) and cds. Some nights I get to stay out for a bit and have a drink or a round of pool. Other nights I’m back in the bus, plane, or car heading towards another city (usually thinking how nice it would be to have a drink and a round of pool) just to do it again tomorrow.

is the author of The New Clean (2011, Write Bloody Publishing), and starred in the award winning web-series Verse: A Murder Mystery from Rattapallax Films. He is an adjunct with the City University of New York, a Youth Mentor with Urban Word-NYC, and teaches creative writing at Bailey House in Harlem (an HIV/AIDS service center). He writes a regular interview column with Union Station Magazine, and is the co-founder of Poets in Unexpected Places. He tours extensively, both nationally and internationally. Say yes to www.jonsands.com.

One comment:

  1. I've Had The Pleasurable Opportunity To See This Fella, Speak His Words, A Number Of Times. An Honest Man, Backed With Talent, Few Rarely Witness In Person. He Manages To Convince All, Within Earshot, That They Are Awake, And This "Is" LIFE. If He Had Wings… I Wouldn't Be Surprised!

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