The Berlin Diaries – The Poets

I first visited Berlin back in May, just for a weekend. During that weekend I met a bunch of Michelle’s friends, all of whom I loved. One of these many weird and wonderful people was Annie, a writer from Houston, Texas. When we first met in May, Michelle, Annie and I spent a long, hot summer day hanging out and discussing all kinds of peculiar and brilliant things.

I remember Annie telling me about an article she was writing, about how increasingly nobody buys products, they simply hire them. We don’t buy bikes, we hire them for the day. We don’t buy houses, we rent them. She said this was called ‘the age of access’. I still remember the conversation. It was great. We smoked a joint after and were both sick, after a day of drinking. Ah, memories.

I’ve seen Annie a couple of times since moving here, the first time was after the eye contact exhibit thing I attended a few weeks back. Once again, we discussed writing and poetry and whatnot, and I asked her if she knew of any literary events taking place in the city. Sure enough, she knew tons. I looked them up online the next day, and filled my diary with dates and details. I’ve never been to a slam poetry event or spoken word night in my life. It’s always fascinated and excited me, it’s just – there’s none of that in my home town. I’d be laughed out of the room for suggesting the idea, half-swilled pints of bitter flying over my head as I ran for the door.

I love words. There’s so much power in them. I believe that by choosing the right words and placing them in the right order, you can do anything. You can make someone fall in or out of love with you. You can start wars or end them. It’s all just wind, just pitches and tones and vowels. Just noises. Use them correctly, however, and you can achieve absolutely anything you want to.

Even in the most seemingly innocuous of circumstances, the right word can change everything. If I’m writing a book on the life of a famous figure, let’s say Winston Churchill, the words I use completely change the way I depict him, and how the reader views him. Will I vilify him? Will I immortalise him? The difference can lie in the most mundane of sentences.

Churchill limped up onto the podium.

Churchill strode up onto the podium.

Churchill swaggered onto the podium.

Three words, all meaning mostly the same thing, but each one massively alters the sentiment of the sentence. It can be dangerous. The Daily Mail and the Sun are experts at this. Notice how Jeremy Corbyn never makes an announcement; he boasts, or drones. Words are immensely powerful. That’s why language excites me so much, and that’s why I absolutely adore writing. With this in mind, you can imagine I was quite giddy heading to my first spoken word night.

I got the U Bahn across freezing night time Berlin to Neukolln, to a bar called ‘Du Beast’; a gloomy, steamy windowed affair, all dripping candlewax and cigarettes. I met Victoria inside as I was running late. We bought expensive beers, and at just after 8pm we headed downstairs into a windowless, brick-walled basement. I couldn’t have drawn a more stereotypical location for a spoken word night, and I loved it. We bumped into some friends I’d met at a party a week or two before, a Belgian girl called Heleen and her mates, and sat next to them at the back of the room. It filled up fast, until every available seat and bench and knackered sofa was heavy with bodies.

A broad grinning black guy called Naniso hushed the room, and welcomed everyone. I’d picked a fantastic day to visit: it was the 10th of November, the day after the US elections. I had spent the past 48 hours moving through all stages of grief. I’d been apoplectic with rage, snapping at friends and family, I’d been in the pits of despair, I’d been numb, I’d been delusional, laughing and shrugging it off, I’d tried bargaining, reassuring myself that maybe he wouldn’t be so bad, but eventually I settled back into my usual political mood: functioning yet furious. Anger is the best motivator.

Naniso sat on a stool under a bright spotlight and opened the evening by addressing the obvious. I think his particular take on recent political events was something akin to “WHAT? WHAT? CHRIST NO. WHAT???” The rest of the crowd was in noisy agreement. In a basement full of poets in the depths of Berlin, I wouldn’t imagine you’d find too many Trump supporters. Tellingly, despite meeting dozens of Americans since moving here, I’ve met not one Trump supporter. It’s almost as if they never leave their hometowns, or something.

As Naniso talked, members of the crowd heckled him jovially. They all called each other by name, cracking jokes and taking the piss out of one another. They were all incredibly comfortable in their environment. They must have been having these meet ups for a long time. It felt like walking onto the set of a sitcom as a new guy – the cast already have their relationships and in-jokes, and you just shuffle into Joey’s flat and sit between Ross and Rachel and smile politely hoping they don’t notice how out of place you are. Naniso finished his relatively-PC anti-Trump speech, and up came the first speaker.

He was called Seth, a charismatic young guy with thick black hair and a beard, and he mentioned at the start that he was of Mexican descent. Oh, Jesus. This guy would surely have a thing or two to say about Trump. He began his piece, loud and bold and theatrical – no first timer. He told the story of his family’s move to America when he was young, under the Bush administration. He told of his Mexican father’s success as a businessman in the housing market, thanks to hard work and blind patriotism to America, the country that had welcomed him in with open arms. He told of the war in Iraq, and 9/11, and how, despite the change in tone that the country underwent, life in his family went on as usual.

Seth described the euphoric rush of Obama’s campaign, and how the message of ‘Hope’ spread throughout the country, and he couldn’t wait to rush out and vote. His parents had never been more patriotic. However, between 2008 and 2012, things took a turn for the worse in his family. His father lost much of his business as the housing market crashed, taking all his years of toil with it. In 2012, Seth didn’t vote for Obama, disillusioned with the promises that had been made and not kept.

Since then, things for worse for his family – until 2016, and the election. At this point, Seth threw down the notepad he had been reading from, growing more agitated. He told us that although he did not vote for Trump, he was happy he had won. Not because of any of his policies, and not because he agreed with any of the hate of his campaign. Seth declared that, though he never expected it, he was happy that Trump had won, because this was too far to be brushed aside as simple politics. This was the point that would finally make everyone sit up and take note of how bad things had gotten. No longer could his family and thousands more be ignored. He said that now people would have to do something about it – to finally address the issues that got this evil man elected, and that put his once-optimistic family out of a home and job.

After a moment’s stunned silence, there was rapturous applause. I was amazed by the fury and power in his words. There are times when I grow angry at the apathy I see in the world. On the day of Trumps election, I rode the tube to see friends and drink together, because I didn’t want to be stewing alone. Nobody looked upset, or angry, or shocked. People were just playing on their phones, reading the paper, everything normal. I know people deal with bad news in different ways, but I was astonished to hear not one conversation regarding it. Here though, in this low lit, sweltering basement, I was so happy to have found true emotion. These are the people that are going to change things, I’m sure of it.

The next readers were an eclectic mix. An Asian guy with long, straight hair stood at the front in an Allen Ginsberg ‘Howl’ t-shirt and read strange geometric poetry describing a huge mythical animal, some elephant-type beast, exactly recounting the dimensions of its body, tusks and teeth. A silvery haired woman, who was infinitely alluring in her posture and gaze, read from a lightly held MacBook a harrowing, articulate introduction to her book; of her experiences as a child in an incestuous family. A Norwegian girl wearing a red and black velvet jacket read a poem about her biggest fear; her own mind.

A gangly English guy in a cap read a story about his Halloween night, when he dressed up in drag for a joke, but found himself identifying with women in a way he never had before. His reading contained some fantastic lines on his own loneliness and the desire for a partner. ‘I ripened my apples for you,’ was one such line. Another was ‘I want to go with you on an all-inclusive holiday, and argue the entire time’.

There were several more Trump speeches. One of the organisers, a girl whose name I didn’t catch, read a poem which contained the world ‘fuck’ at least a hundred times. It was brilliant. The same themes occurred in every Trump speech: alienation, loss, anger, sadness, and fear. Everyone seemed to have a different method when taking to the stage: reading from a mobile phone, a notepad, a book, a stack of papers, a laptop, or reciting from memory. No two styles were the same, and the crowd was incredibly welcoming. Everyone received a warmth welcome and a hero’s finish.

I came to Berlin for more reasons than I can count. Sometimes I feel so lost that I think perhaps I came for no reason at all. One sentiment that keeps rebounding around the inside of my head is that I wanted to find people like me, whatever that means. I often feel like I overanalyse everything, like I’m self-assessing constantly. I fear people can see through this, sometimes, and that they will realise that I don’t have a clue what I’m doing or who I want to be. In that basement, I found a gathering of people that overthought and worried and wondered just as much as I do. I felt at home.

I’m going back tonight, just to watch again. Maybe next week I’ll read. We’ll see how brave I feel.

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