So, I've got these cups of coffee, one for me and one for poet Maggie Estep, and I'm carrying them out to the patio, when I notice that the furniture--huge, ornate tables and chairs made of cast iron--is chained to the cement. I am struck by the lyrical paranoia of chaining an already immovable object to the ground.
Estep, already occupying one Gibraltar-like chair, peers sleepily down at the ominous shackles. She smiles.
"In New York, I don't care how heavy it is, if you don't tie it down it's gone," she says. "I stole a big wooden bench once. Just carried it off. It was beautiful." I guess the statute of limitations is up on that particular crime; I know it is on mine.
"I stole a bench once, too," I admit, inwardly marveling at the strange things people find to bond around. I needed a bench for a party, dragged one away from a business park, and always intended to sneak it back to its rightful place.
"See," my she nods. "Chains are a good thing."
My confessor this afternoon is a celebrated New York performance artist best known as MTV's "spoken-word" poster girl. She performed on various unplugged shows and then with the station's "Free Your Mind" poetry tour, before performing at Woodstock II and hitting the road with the Lollapalooza festival. Her work has been seen on PBS' United States of Poetry, and she's released a number of sensation-causing records. Estep first encountered success in the early '90's, gaining a loyal audience hungry for her stark, angry, self-revealing, uncompromisingly funny poetic rants.
She is currently in the midst of a national reading tour to promote her first novel, Diary of an Emotional Idiot (Knopf, 1997) . The book is pure Estep, a sharp, satirical series of first-person accounts told by Zoe--a writer of smut who part-times as a receptionist for a surly dominatrix--that becomes a spot-on illumination of the sicknesses by which human beings often tend to define themselves.
Awake since 4 this morning, Estep started her day in Seattle, rushed to catch her California-bound plane, landed in San Francisco, met her ride, stopped to pick up a sandwich to smuggle into the theater, and arrived looking exactly as if she'd just done all that. After making my acquaintance, she displayed her sandwich and announced, "If I don't fall asleep during the movie, I can at least eat."
"Tell me again why we saw this movie," Estep demands, sweetly enough, displaying little of the dangerous, "I'm-an-angry-sweaty-girl-so-bite-me" attitude for which she is famous.
"It was a fallback," I admit. "Just in case Crash--the weird, kinky car-sex movie --wasn't playing. It isn't."
"Right," she nods. "Now I remember."
What love jones does have going for it is poetry. It's an amiable enough tale about a group of friends, black professionals, that takes place amid the teeming poetry-slam cafes of modern-day Chicago. It disappeared from theaters almost as soon as it arrived, but stands as one of the few films in recent memory to highlight the power of poetry and to show black characters outside the violent "gangstas in the hood" genre.
So how was the poetry in love jones?
"It sucked!" Estep shouts. "I don't know why they didn't get some better poetry, because there is plenty of it out there to get. There's good poetry everywhere, in every city in the country. I think they should have had one of my contemporaries write those poems, Tracy Morris or Sam Korbell. There are all these great young black poets that would have served it better."
I remind her of a conversation in the film in which the friends debate the gender of God, adding, "I've had that conversation a zillion times."
"Oh, so have I," she shoots back. "Who hasn't?"
"So, what gender is God?" I ask.
"Well, it changes, of course," she jokes. "God switches from boy to girl, depending."
She takes another swig of coffee. "God and spirituality and everything is a fascinating subject, isn't it?" she goes on. "I cry a lot when I see beautiful paintings. That somehow is a form of spirituality, crying at paintings. There's spirit there, there's verve.
"The first time I cried was at a Francis Bacon show, at the Modern in New York, about six or seven years ago. And then it was in Rome, getting to seeing Caravaggio's paintings, in person. My favorite was Judith severing the head of Holofernes.
"Judith has this detached look on her face, and she's holding his head on this platter. Its the most bizarre and yet moving painting. Its amazing. I stood there in Rome and just cried. That was a very spiritual moment.
"Did you know that Caravaggio was the first person to paint Jesus and the Madonna with dirty feet?" she says. "There is a lot of beauty in those real details, in dirt. It's humanity! I love those details.
"We're a dirty species--dirty in a good way," she offers, kicking absently at the chains that bind her chair. "In my mind, being dirty is a beautiful thing. It means we're alive."