So That If I Died It Mattered

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I went back to Ohio Friday night to see another friend from college get married. This was my fifth such wedding in three years. Surrounded by my Ohio friends and their spouses, I found myself having to consider, once again, what it means to be 29 and not in a meaningful relationship. My last long-term romance concluded in the wake of my graduation from Ohio University in 2006. I immediately migrated to the creative mecca of New York, a city that doesn’t pressure you to grow up in the same way the Midwest does. Professionally and creatively-speaking, it is a world class incubator, no doubt. But if you wish to remain a career bachelor, you receive a Big Apple cosign into your seventies. Every transplant I know has had to head home at some point to face the germinating evidence of their profound singleness.

I was in Ohio less than 24 hours, as I had to return to perform a poetry set on Sunday afternoon at the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Tompkins Square Park. I am a working poet. Over the past six years, I have led creative writing workshops and performed poetry in auditoriums, bars, syringe exchanges, universities, libraries, prisons, youth centers, bookstores, and theaters in Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and across the United States. The pay is modest but manageable, and every time I seriously consider a less freelance source of income, some new window of opportunity opens whispering, don’t be afraid, you are supposed to be here.

When asked to explain my choices, I’ve said, “Art is how you explain what it feels like to be alive in the 21st century. I am an emotional historian.” But that’s really my answer to, “Why should we all make art?” My why is more personal. When I hit a writing groove, or perform, all these divided parts focus into one story. In these small moments, I am not confused about what matters.

Looking out at the crowd in Tompkins Square Park, I realize that this is the largest audience I have ever performed for. Over 6,000 people spread across the grass and concrete to see jazz. I go to the bathroom five times in 45 minutes, and nearly throw up in front of the Summer Stage photo backdrop. Jeanne Kabenji once told me that, “Stage fright is your body informing you of a journey into the unknown.” I wish I had asked anyone I love to be here.

Yesterday, my mother drove two hours from Cincinnati to take me to breakfast. While my hungover stomach caved in around itself in the Columbus Red Roof Inn, I prayed to the gods of clarity to make me a good son. I’ve spent too many years taking out my own emotional confusion on my mother because she never stops loving me. She would rather be with me than without me, even when I’m a dick, and I’ve spent years fashioning that into some sort of license.

I make it through a breakfast burrito, and keep the narratives about last night’s reception minimalist. We have two hours until she drives me to the airport, so we go to Goodale Park.

My mother is the kindest person a lot of people know. I often tell her this, and she consistently assures, “You haven’t always known me.”

She was the seventh of twelve children in an Irish-Catholic, anti-contraception household in Ft. Lee, New Jersey. In 1995, my grandmother was losing a battle with cancer, while single-handedly caring for my grandfather whose brain was succumbing more, each day, to Alzheimer’s. She allowed my mother to visit and stay until she passed; to change my grandfather’s diapers, take him on walks; to bring my grandmother water, and make her bed. My mother has a history of never asking more from those who are suffering, and she listens to people (not just loved ones) in a way that makes them feel heard. That scene in White Men Can’t Jump where Rosie Perez explains love to Woody Harrelson, something like, “I don’t want you to bring me water, I want you to sympathize. To say Gloria, I too know what it’s like to be thirsty.” My mother invented that shit, but she also brings water.

This spawned years of rebellion from me, her youngest son. I pursued independence by repeatedly rejecting, resenting, desperately succumbing to, and then ultimately depending on this profound well of empathy. By “repeatedly,” I mean over, and over, and over between the ages of 13 and 28. This didn’t prevent me from appreciating my mother, but it did prevent me from humanizing her kindness.

After my parents’ brief separation when I was 14, my body would not let my mother cry around me. I would, literally, fall asleep. My father, with a heavy heart, had left the home of his wife and four children in order to find out more about the love he had for another woman. It was impossible for my mother to talk about what was happening without crying, and my reaction was always swift. Eventually, she stopped telling me. For 14 years, we focused on a subject we both loved: Me.

This Saturday in Columbus is the longest time I’ve spent alone with my mother since I was a teenager. The overt parts of who I am, I immediately trace to my father. I was a chubby kid (as was my dad), and my three older brothers were not, which made everyone assume I was the primary recipient of his genetics. We are both viscerally stubborn, until quietly we are not. We don’t allow the ones we love to know we have heard them. We lash out defensively, then, over time, we let them watch us change.

My time slot at the Jazz Festival is just before the headliner: Gregory Porter is a legend, and the park quakes for him. The ten minutes it takes his band to set up is to be filled with poetry. The festival host from Jazz 88.3 says only, “Now welcome the author of The New Clean, Jon Sands.” Followed by 6,000 people who do not know I can see each of their faces, individually. I begin a poem called “When I See Andre 3000 Buying Bananas at Trader Joe’s.” The first line is, I say everything you’ve ever done/ has meant so much to me./ He says, I’ve done PCP. I say/ that meant so much to me. 

When I get to the part of the poem where Andre 3000 asks me about everything I’ve ever done, I have to admit, I masturbated this morning picturing/ a woman I made out with two years ago./ I am preachy and self-important/ when I talk about race with my family,/ sometimes when I’m not listening,/ I make my face look like it’s SUPER listening.

The crowd communicates two types of people: those who have no idea what is happening on stage at this jazz festival, and are entertained by that, and those who have no idea what is happening, and are decidedly not. I’m not sure which camp I fall in.

The poem ends to a confused smattering of applause, and I say, “The other poem I’d like to read you today is a love poem.” This is the first time I have ever been booed. It was only about 100 of 6,000, but 100 sounds like a shitload.

I say, “I know! I can’t wait to hear Gregory Porter either, but he needs to set up!” Then I introduce the poem I wrote for the wedding of my brother Ben in October of 2011 on the occasion of his marriage to a Texas transplant named Wendell. They had been engaged before same-sex marriage was legal in New York, and whenever fielding questions of whether they planned to go to Massachusetts to legitimize their nuptials, they’d reply that they wanted to get married in the city where they had fallen in love, where they go to work, pay taxes, argue, take walks, and drink coffee. If the civil rights didn’t exist yet— they would vote, and they would wait.

The first time I read the poem aloud was to my brother, sunk into his couch in Hell’s Kitchen. It documents the night Ben first knew he loved Wendell, four months into their relationship. Wendell leapt from the bed they shared, mid-credits of a James Bond movie, to execute an interpretive spy dance around Ben’s bedroom in his underwear. This man, possessed only by the desire to bring him joy, unlocked Ben. The poem says of my brother, You are traveling into your past where he is/ not, but now you see him everywhere./ In the moving van at nine years old. At thirteen,/ in the mirror and the bottle of pills, he was there./ In the arms of the first man to hold you/ and assure you were beautiful. 

In my high school of 2,200 kids, Ben was the only student out-of-the-closet. He came out the summer before his junior year, but four years prior, after being bullied at choir practice by an eighth grader who called him a faggot (something that had happened to him since he was in second grade), he quietly admitted to himself that everyone was right. He was shameful, and it would be best for our family if he wasn’t here. He walked into our bathroom and swallowed a bottle of Advil. A half hour later he told my mother, and in three minutes he was riding shotgun in my father’s Ford Taurus doing 55 on the back roads to the hospital. The doctors induced vomiting, and he spent the next four hours in a hospital bed while my mother brushed the hair across his forehead and whispered over and over again that she loved him.

I read the poem I wrote for his wedding to this man who I need to never lose faith in me: my brother, who has played an unimaginable role in the person I am attempting to become. The poem had to claw from my mouth as we held each other sobbing on the couch.

The reading in Tompkins Square Park is less cathartic. I can see the individual faces, the ones that have no idea that I’m looking at them. Some are angry that I am still on stage. A few have tears in their eyes. Some are confused. Some not. As though nudged from a dream, my set is over, and I am free to consider what just happened. The stage manager says, “Tough crowd, huh?” I am 29 and single, walking backstage to mild applause.

My mother’s younger sister Mary died at four years old. She drowned in a lake behind their house. My mom is 60 now, sitting with me in Goodale Park. She tells me that years after her death, the man who found Mary’s body would die as a drunk driver in a car accident. He had carried the body back to their house. Each brother and sister saw her laid out at 4:00 p.m. on the only free bed. A neighbor cooked them all hot dogs and heated up frozen corn, and by 5:00 p.m. all the younger children were put to bed. In the morning, they woke for the wake, and by 2:00 p.m. Mary was buried forever in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

She tells me that when the family got home from the funeral, her two eldest siblings, both in high school, were scheduled to attend a weekly sock-hop. My grandparents urged them to go, saying, “You have to move on with your life.” For years, her parents rarely spoke of Mary. My mother would learn in her adult life that they had spent three years of nights privately crying in the dark.

My mom was seven, learning that grief did not involve sadness. You die, then a hole closes around where you were, perhaps leaving a small scar, and then the survivors continue with the business of mortality. Her parents fought, perhaps, the most difficult battle of their lives in silence in order to not burden their children with even a small share of grief.

“Did you think that was a good thing?” I ask.

“Honestly, as a child, I never thought about that.”

It wasn’t until over a decade later, when my mother was at Creighton University in Omaha, that she slid into a profound depression. Her realization, thousands of miles from her gigantic family and past, was that if she died, it would be a small story on the Creighton Campus, a small story in New Jersey, and ultimately, no one depended on her survival.

Then she tells me, her youngest son, what I never thought to ask. “I really tried hard to be the best person I could be. So that if I died it mattered.”

She puts a hand on my forearm, and her face scrunches together like it might withhold what she just said. Tears begin to drop from her cheek and gather on the wood. I can see all that I have inherited in this life from work my mother did before she ever knew me; what it means that I am sitting across from her in an empty park watching her cry. I picture my mother again at the hospital with Ben in 1994. I can see how she must have wanted nothing more than to protect him at choir practice, to defend him in study hall, or anywhere else that adolescence proved itself relentless to her 13-year-old son; how all she had to give was the person she had become, how it placed her by his hospital bed: a steadfast witness, a position she would never abandon; how then when he came out of the closet four years later, she knew that he had saved his own life.

I can see how much it meant to me to be asked to document the love story of my older brother; to be held, weeping on his couch, in recognition of the life we’ve spent together. Since I was born, I have always assumed I was becoming only my father. I can see how the desire to matter is not a charge that began with my birth, or will culminate with my death. My eyes are open, and I can see, for a moment, who I have become.

The Wake of What I Love: A Commencement Address

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On June 25, 2010, Poet Jon Sands delivered the commencement address for the Bronx Academy of Letters – A charter school in Bronx, New York, founded on the concept that, “students who can express themselves clearly in writing can do better in any path they choose.”

Class of 2010. Here we are. 27 years, 6 months, 26 days, 7 hours since Michael Jackson released Thriller (which is still the best selling album in music history). 143 years since Christopher Latham Sholes invented the modern typewriter. 46 years, 9 months, 28 days since Martin Luther King Jr. told a crowd of over 200,000 that he had a dream.  And, 36 years, 4 months, 6 days, 8 hours since my own father – after dropping out of his second year in college – decided to take a computer class to make more money than was possible at his construction job. And with a clear Manhattan morning waiting outside the glass windows, he asked the foxy lady wearing big glasses – who would turn out to be my mother – if the seat next to her was taken… and here I am.

All of which is to say, there are many paths that have brought us to this room today. Stories which led to stories which lead to right now. There is no person in this room without a great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother. Or more accurately, 128 great, great, great, great, great, great grandmothers. Beautiful ladies (I’m assuming) with favorite foods, dreams at night, who lived entire lives, and created lives that have led specifically to you… which has led you – here. We are in this room because an incredible line of history said, “yes,” when it could have said, “no.”

In 2003, my Uncle Don was practicing law in New Jersey. Don taught himself to play guitar when he was in high school, spent years covering other people’s songs at parties or reunions. Every so often – he would write a song for a funeral. Always, it would land with precision on what that person actually meant to each of us, individually. At 47, he decided his guitar made him happier than nearly anything else. He sunk an incredible amount of everything he had, financially and energetically, into creating an album; contacted professional musicians with samplings of his work, to ask if they would join him. Now there are maybe 1,500 people outside of my family who have this remarkable CD – someone I love doing what they love. Eighteen months after the disc was released, my uncle was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After a strikingly short 5 months, he passed, leaving behind a wife and three children (ages 13, 15, and 17).

When we miss him. When the people who love him need to spend time with him – they skip photo albums and old videos, and instead go to a CD. To the documentation of him doing what he loved. Not to be a millionaire. Not to be famous. But to give this world some account that says, this – this right here – is what it feels like to be me.

Each of us entered this room – as we do any room – carrying many labels. Which is to say, today, you are high-school graduates. There are 64 of you. Two months ago you may have been the kid freestlying battle raps outside McDonald’s with three friends who couldn’t stop laughing, or the quiet girl in the back of a library – her nose glued into a 3.8 GPA.

I spend a significant amount of time being the crazy dude who came to someone else’s classroom to talk about how poetry is amazing. Right now, I’m the commencement speaker. I promise, in three hours, I’ll be the guy who looks uncomfortable in a tie on the downtown 4 train. The way it feels to live a life that can only be yours is never as clean as whatever label this world attaches to you. If you are alive  — Is every person here alive?… If you are alive in this world, you can attest. What it feels like to be you is more complicated than what it looks like to be you.

So, is there ever a time you are more yourself than when doing what you love – with the people you love? Who you are exists in what you love. It is how you tell the children you have yet to bring into this world the person you were today. To tell the you who will exist 20 years from now what it felt like to close the locker door on your high school years.

We are all here because today is important. A chance to reflect on the way our lives are changing. We are also here – to celebrate – the choices you have made that led to your caps and gowns. I think we can take a minute to blow the roof off for that.

But, you will have many todays. No one else can decide how they will look. Michael Jackson, when recording Billie Jean, could not have known the way our ankles would pop for decades. Martin Luther King Jr. chose to ascend the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, not to become a cultural icon, but to communicate the vision he had for a nation. My Uncle Don could never have known what his artistry would mean to his wife, his nieces and nephews, his parents, his three children. He made music because it was what he loved. It was who he was. A choice to say, “yes,” when he could have said, “no.”

We have been afforded the opportunity to write our own chapters in the story of this life because millions of people, over thousands of years, have said “yes.” It is not feasible for me to tell you what is possible in your life. History has written you here, the next chapter is yours. Here is the news: It’s supposed to be fun. It’s not supposed to be easy (the juiciest stuff rarely is). It is supposed to be yours. And what better news can there be?

I cannot wait to witness the stories you write into this world. Congratulations Bronx Academy of Letters, Class of 2010.

[Image credit: ChrisGampat]

A Poet on the Road

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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.A regular day, for our purposes, we can call it a TuesdayMorning: 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 (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.