A year or so ago, I read a poem that included this line:
“They are shoes that fool absolutely no one.”
This stuck with me, not only because my shoes have never fooled anyone, or not for long, but also because the poem described exactly how I used to feel about all those holiday parties hosted by my husband’s previous two employers, and it made me grateful—so deeply grateful—that yoga people don’t tend to throw those kinds of parties. Or wear shoes much.
Recently, for some reason,* I thought of it again and decided to track it down—but I couldn’t remember the title or the name of the poet or where I’d read it, or, as it turned out, a few crucial words of the single line I thought I knew.
But finally, after throwing in every keyword I could think of, Poetry Foundation’s search engine finally coughed it up: “At the Office Holiday Party” by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz.
Who, I learned, has written several books of poetry and co-founded the NYC-Urbana Poetry Slam, and has performed her poetry all over the world, and was given an NEA Fellowship and residencies, and has a great website, and is also all over YouTube.
I might have mentioned once or twice how much I love slam poetry, and you can add Ms. Aptowicz to my list of favorite poet-performers.
“Mother” wasn’t the first performance of Ms. Aptowicz I found—that would be “Crack Squirrels,” which is a singular experience—but it also wasn’t the last.
Her work runs the gamut between darkly humorous and wacky-with-a-side-of-reality, from smooth to jagged, subtle to full-on bring it, and almost always includes an undertone of think about it.
I found the poems about writing and being a writer to be particularly hilarious and painfully relatable, especially the sarcastic ones (you may need to adjust the volume on this):
Many of her poems shift as they go—a painful subject becomes funny enough to handle. A funny poem becomes achingly sincere. A poem about nothing much becomes a poem about everything—and vice versa.
I was listening to this one and grinning to myself . . . and then, about three and a half minutes in, I was hearing myself:
Ms. Aptowicz turns things on their ears and grabs me by my ears and makes me use the stuff between my ears.
And yes, she shouts, and yes, she’s insistent and sometimes shrill** and occasionally impatient and mean—though always with meaning and self-awareness—and sometimes her voice hurts to hear.***
Some of her poems don’t speak to me at all, from page or performance. Them’s the odds.
But it turns out that “Office Holiday Party” wasn’t a one-off for me—Ms. Aptowicz is one of those poets who, as Kim Downer might say, shows me my truths,^ the stuff I celebrate and the stuff I don’t want to face, at least not alone.
But as long as I can put myself in Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s shoes, I won’t be.
*Okay, I was cutting out new inserts for my shoes, hoping to fool myself into believing that this will fix them up as good as new, because they’re my very favorite pair and I’ve worn them so long that the company that made them isn’t around any more.
**Some of that is recording and microphone quality, and some of it, at least in her earlier performances, seems to be nervousness—which only raises my respect for her, because she’s up there anyway and she keeps going and she rocks it.
***I’d argue that this is why it’s called slam and not polite and also why it isn’t for everyone. And that’s okay.
^Your truths may vary—and that’s okay, too. If you’re looking for a more general funny, try “This Mask is What’s Holding my Face Up.” It’s comedy gold.