The Operating System

3rd Annual 30/30/30 Poetry Month Series :: Inspiration, Community, Tradition :: Day 1 :: Introduction and CHY RYAN SPAIN on KAREN FINLEY

The Operating System is thrilled to welcome you to our 3rd Annual 30-on-30-in-30 Poetry Month Celebration! In this wildly popular series, begun in 2012, we invite creative people from a range of backgrounds to share a story about how their work has been influenced by a poet of their choice, which we post every day during the month of April.
here’s the basic refresher:
Over the course of Poetry Month The OS brings you 30 poets (+ writers, musicians, and artists) writing on 30 (+ a few extra) poets for 30 days (every day in April). The intention is simple, but crucial: to explode the process of sharing our influences and joys beyond the random. To create a narrative archive around that moment where we excitedly pass on the work of someone who has made a difference in our lives. And so, too, this is an opportunity for The OS to introduce our audience to the work of the people writing — who are invited to share work of their own that demonstrates that influence. Really, its an exercise in appreciation. 
We’ve all been there, at the heady crux of introduction to something new, something important that moves another — and that moment can be life changing for the person receiving that gift of introduction. This series is, well, that moment on steroids, archived so you can experience it again and again like poetry groundhog day. (you’re welcome! you can find a list of all former posts from 2012 and 2013 here)
What’s perhaps most exciting is that each year previous participants are involved in passing on the torch, so to speak, personally inviting others in the community who they feel would be perfect contributors — expanding its reach organically, far beyond any of our individual or professional circles.
I’m particularly honored to begin this year’s series with this moving piece from Toronto-based performer, educator, writer extraordinaire (and one of my dearest friends for nearly two decades) Chy Ryan Spain, reflecting on his introduction to Karen Finley. I cried when I first read these words, because it doesn’t pull any punches. He gets deep down into the muddy places where poetry does the most work for us — when we are young, in so many cases; but then again, too, for the person in us who continues to need a simpatico voice whenever we feel, as Finley says below, that “we live in a world that kills beautiful things.” For if, in the end, there’s someone else who recognizes it, maybe we can find each other – maybe there is hope for us, and beautiful things.
Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Series Coordinator/Editor
[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image]I was a timid boy. I was a timid black boy growing up in a working class, politically conservative, racially segregated suburb of Philadelphia. I was a timid black queer boy from an abusive household. I had very few people whom I trusted. I assumed most people were programmed to find me abhorrent – especially if they knew my truth. Writing gave me a voice.
At age 15, my advanced placement English teacher (one of the few people I trusted enough to let them really see me) slipped me a copy of Karen Finley‘s “Shock Treatment” with a note scrawled on a post-it that read, “I think you’ll appreciate this.” I had never read anything like it before.
The text was unapologetically vile, lewd – full of muck, violence, sexuality, shame, abuse, anger, and revenge. I devoured it. Her recordings gave the impression of a women caterwauling her ugliest truths and fantasies. I was enamoured. I wrote more.
My beloved English teacher informed a trusted handful of us that Finley would be performing in a downtown Philadelphia art space, and offered to take us on a most-certainly-not-school-approved field trip. As a performance artist and poet, Finley gained infamy in the 1990’s when she became one of four artists to have their NEA grants revoked by Jesse Helms for their supposed obscenity. On this particular evening, she screeched through several pieces I had practically memorized – wearing only a pair of white heels, sheer pantyhose, a pillbox hat and pearls – all the while cracking raw eggs over her bare breasts and body.
After the performance, my best friend and I snuck into the bar holding Finley’s after-party. I nervously handed her a pre-packaged collection of some of my poems, with my address attached, and asked her if she would read them and tell me what she thought.
A few short months later, a letter arrived in the mail addressed to me with Karen’s critiques of my 15-year-old angst. She was kind, and gracious, and supportive of the expressions of some of my ugliest truths.
Particularly the darker ones.
“I like that,” the letter read. “You should write more of that.”

From Shock Treatment
One day it just stopped raining
The sky couldn’t cry anymore
The sky wanted to stop crying
and start doing something
This was the only way to get people’s attention.
One day it stopped raining tears
but rained blood
It rained blood and garbage and shit
No one knew where it came from
This was the only way to get people’s attention
The blood and shit landed on beaches
This was the only way to get people’s attention.
One day all the fish decided to die
One day all the birds decided not to fly
All the vegetables stopped growing.
One day all the air left earth
It wasn’t worth giving life to us anymore
This was the only way to get people’s attention.
One day Gloria’s son killed himself
Sometimes you have to do extreme things to feel loved
to feel missed, to have your love accepted
I’ve spent most of my life trying to convince others that
I love them
but they’ve never accepted my love.
I’m waiting for the right time, he says
(everyone knows it’s always the wrong time)
Don’t wait
for someone who once left you
to return to your doorstep
for a divorce to be final
for the right person to come around
Don’t wait till I’m eligible
till I get a loft
till I get a John
till I get a job
till I stop being sick.
I’ve spent most of my life trying to convince others that
I love them
but they never accepted my love.
My country hates me
My city wants to get rid of me
My family disowned me
My husband left me
My babies were never born.
Sometimes I get so angry here in the summer. Every
year I say I’m not staying in New York City. I have
dreams of going out and beating to death all of the
flowers in my family’s backyard. I dream of destroying
swimming pools and air conditioners. I dream of de-
capitating roses and sunflowers and daylilies. I recall
my first violent act-killing a tiger-tail butterfly. I
captured the stained glass critter and suffocated her
with rubbing alcohol. We love to kill beautiful things.
We live in a world that loves to kill beautiful things.
Tonight, let me remind you of July nights, of dancing
fireflies, the sounds of crickets, a blanket of cool pine
needles, slurpies, red ball jets and hot panting dogs.
And as soon as we were eighteen we got the hell out
of there.
Whenever I visit the suburbs I break out in a sweat
hotter than Avenue D and 3rd Street. Whenever I visit
nice, secure folks’ backyards and sit on their lawn
furniture I break out in a sweat hotter than the F train
at the 2nd Avenue stop because I knew from the
beginning that I don’t belong to the family class, the
middle class, the upper class. I feel uncomfortable
around windows that aren’t barred up. I’m a caged bird
in heat.
I’ll tell you why I only feel comfortable around the
collapsed, the inebriated and the broken-because they
look like what I feel inside.
They look like what I feel inside.
They look like what I feel inside.
Last night I dreamt of beating marigolds to death,
strangling petunias and decapitating pansies, daylilies
and snapdragons. They didn’t cry, they just stopped
growing. I was surrounded by bleeding naked necks of
flowers, stems and stalks, black and blue petals; and
the petals blow through the smells of the city.
And I wake up and I’m back home in my artist ghetto.
It’s the only place where I belong. A place where flowers
haven’t grown for a long time. Where rainbows haven’t
been seen for a long time. Where trees don’t get paid to
provide shade.
Yeah, it’s summer, call it sunshine. And I try to smile
and I try not to smell all the shit on the streets and see
the needles in the arms. I try to say, “Oh, the homeless
are only burning and at least they’re not freezing”‘, It’s
just another corner in hell.
-karen finley
reference only

october first:
day three of trying not to do too much blow.
late afternoon, maybe early evening …
may as well be crack of dawn –
you’ve already been forced to confront
the riot of violent emotions when faced with
the casual, public affections of heterosexual couples,
and taken a moment to ponder the grammatical confluence
of maybe, (one word) and may be, (two).
(further adventures in self-medication: administer)
first americano; no significant response.
your favourite local café.
hours best described as:                 lonely.
flip through the paper,
draw hipster ‘staches on the pre-teen exploits in american apparel ads;
read your horoscope, again:
no hope.
read the sex advice columns:
even less.
read the stellar review of a contemporary’s latest –
what’s the opposite of schaudenfreude?
dancing between envy and compersion;
you’re doing that a lot these days:
in your ex’s new condominium (with his new lover,
and your old dog);
at a good friend’s wedding;
your best friend’s book launch;
by your mother’s deathbed.
best not to schedule any major life events.
exist in the ellipses,
sip a second cup of coffee.
the rent is due.
remind your boyfriend, via text message, to eat.
renewed your library card today –
no more important thing on the agenda.
browsed the stacks for barthes, nin …
but they were all
reference only.
– chy ryan spain
[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image]Chy Ryan Spain is a multi-disciplinary artist, performer, activist, organizer, writer, and educator currently serving as Queer Youth Art Program Coordinator at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto. Spain is a graduate of Swarthmore College with a degree in English Education. Select performance credits include: The Queer Bathroom Stories (Libido Productions); Of a Monstrous Child: A Gaga Musical (EcceHomo); The Pastor Phelps Project: A Fundamentalist Cabaret (EcceHomo); and his original, one-man performance piece The Price of Bleach (Rhubarb, 2007).
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