Let Us Not Become Tragedies: Buddy Wakefield at Crowell

Sorry, we don’t actually have photographs. We were too in the moment. Sue us.


Until now, I hadn’t realized just how much of Buddy Wakefield‘s poetry dealt with tragedy. But not in a soul-crushing, terrible way. Actually, the opposite of that. And it wasn’t quite clear until he left the stage on Thursday night.

I’ve listened and watched his material for years, ever since I got into performance poetry.  Because everyone who knows performance poetry knows Buddy. He is, of course, a two-time Individual World Poetry Slam Champion and author for Write Bloody Publishing, and since the last time he came to perform on campus, he got a venue upgrade. Crowell Concert Hall was pretty impressively filled, and no surprise: the WeSlam team advertised the hell out of the event.

It was also a chance for the WeSlam team to show off their newest poetry, with which they’re currently competing this weekend.  My prediction? They’ll sweep up. After having gone to the first slam last semester, I was blown away by what the team members have developed over the past few months. They were the openers, but they could have well been the main event.

Buddy is not a slam poet in that same sense, however, so the hour and a half he occupied the stage was a completely different world. Instead of confining his works to 3-minute, competition-ready pieces (which some of them are, but not many), Buddy stretches his out in every sense of the word. He walks softly past six, seven, even eight minutes, often with gorgeous, textured piano or guitar in the background. And as I’d hoped, cellist/vocalist and woman-about-campus Mel Hsu ’13 and pianist  Simon Riker ’14 not only introduced Buddy but accompanied him throughout the performance. Hard to believe they improvised it all.

After the jump, read more about Buddy’s performance, and catch up on some heart-wrenching recordings of his poetry. It may just change your life, or at least make you think closer about it.

Before I begin talking about how beautiful Buddy’s poetry is and start thinking about how the night relates to tragedy, I just have to point out that Buddy is actually a silly guy. He’s good humored and weird, and it shows best when he’s on stage. He pulled about a dozen water bottles out of his jacket, distributing them around stage (and to Mel and Simon), before awkwardly scaling and balancing himself on a wooden stool. Also, he wrote a magazine about chickens, called Henhouse.

When he got into the poetry, he transitioned so seamlessly from one poem I didn’t recognize into “We Were Emergencies” that it was jarring to realize they weren’t the same. In fact, it all could well have been part of one of his monologues, which also stretched out for quite a few minutes in between poems, not that anyone complained. He always speaks like he’s delivering a line, and every line seems like it’s something you should pay attention to— which it is.

Like his poetry, his stage banter all dealt with similar themes: love, loss, and God. “We Were Emergencies” is a particularly poignant way to begin a night, setting a tone of determination, pushing individual action over waiting for something divine, or waiting for something to be “right,” or just moping around.

I have realized that the moon did not have to be full for us to love it,
that we are not tragedies stranded here beneath it,
that if my heart really broke every time I fell from love,
I’d be able to offer you confetti by now.
But hearts don’t break, y’all,
they bruise and get better.
We were never tragedies. We were emergencies.
You call 9-1-1. Tell them I’m having a fantastic time.

For a writer of a genre that deals in heartbreak and social commentary, Buddy is very adamant about the problem with tragedy. As a country, he said, we’re obsessed with tragedy. And I agree with him. We’re addicted to it, consuming it in our movies and our sad pop songs, and reacting to it in the news with words and reflection more often than useful action.

I think it’s important that we don’t find ourselves caught up in the cinematic awfulness of our situations, something that I’ve very often done myself. It’s tempting, when we’re heartbroken or in despair, to dramatize our situation.

The subtitle to his poem “Hurling Crowbirds at Mockingbars,” which he performed amazingly the other night, is “Hope Is Not A Course of Action.” That’s just it, isn’t it? We despair, or fight, or write poetry, or pray, because we see something wrong in the world. But something wrong in and of itself is not a tragedy. Something becomes a tragedy not when we try to fix it, but when we try the wrong things, or when we don’t try at all. Hope is not a course of action, but a feeling created by action. And if we sit by ourselves and are sad about how things are wrong in the world, or in our own lives, without getting up and changing them— well, that’s a tragedy, and the last thing we want to be. We are never truly stranded, except inside our own minds.

And I’ll admit to using this space as a place to try and figure out all this out, and that analyzing the meaning of poetry is about as far from action as you can get, but you’ve got start somewhere, right?  I honestly do think a good place to start, though, is by listening to voices other than our own. They sometimes say things that make sense.

Listen to/watch “We Were Emergencies” below, and after that, listen to one of my favorite poems by him, “My Town,” which he didn’t perform Thursday but you should listen to anyways.

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