Not Dead Yet
Derrick Brown looked death in the eye and called it a punk.
Laying in a hospital bed in August, paralyzed from anaphylactic shock, the result of what may have been an allergic reaction—maybe low blood sugar, maybe a panic attack, the doctors still aren't sure—Brown was under heavy sedation. But the onetime OC/Long Beach poet somehow managed to strangle the scythe-carrying skeleton watching over him.
Too bad he couldn't do the same to his hospital's billing department. Brown recovered, but with little medical insurance, he was summarily bowled over by a $4,000 mound of debt (apparently, that big poetry-union health plan just doesn't cut it).
Lucky for us, Brown has a lot of talented friends. Fellow poet Jaimes Palacio put the call out to some partners-in-verse for a benefit show happening Monday at the Gypsy Lounge, and he gave it a cheeky moniker: "I'm Not Dead Yet! A Benefit for Derrick Brown." There'll be spoken-word and musical performances throughout the night—two to three pieces/songs each, with 10-minute breaks for some requisite shooting of shit, plus a lineup including Amber Tamblyn (yeah, the Joan of Arcadia Amber Tamblyn), Beth McIlvaine, Brendan Constantine, Mindy Netifee and more, plus a little something from Brown, who'll undoubtedly show what a brush with death can do for one's creative juices.
"I'm honored. The thought of that much talent in one room is sure to get somebody naked out by the Dumpsters," Brown says via e-mail while on tour with Soloman Sparrow's Electric Whale Revival, a vers-libre extravaganza featuring fellow poets Mike McGee, Anis Mojgani and Buddy Wakefield.
Since moving to Nashville two years ago, Brown has seen his career take flight. He opened for the Cold War Kids on their European tour, an experience that led to him being tailed by a documentary crew for a film that, when completed, will be called You Belong Everywhere. They were initially intrigued because they had never heard of a rock band hitting the road with a poet as their opening act.
"I think they were hoping it would be interesting because of the potential for failure," Brown says. There were a few bad nights, but the European audiences also came through from time to time, making Brown appear nearly as glamorous as the Cold War Kids themselves. (Indeed, there were some nights when Brown noticed people in the audience lip-syncing his poems as he read them.)
"I don't think the film will come across as dramatic as they wanted," says Brown. "And the Cold War Kids all get along—they weren't out banging chicks or snorting coke off cocks." Whether it will inspire anyone dreaming of a life as a professional poet is still to be seen. "Some may never want to pick up a pen again."
Before his recent burst of acclaim, Brown was fighting hecklers at open-mic nights in rooms such as the Fahrenheit 451 bookstore in Laguna Beach and the World Cafe in Huntington Beach. This was the '90s, when Brown turned to poetry as a means to get French-kissed by hot girls. But he started taking his writing more seriously when he stopped scrawling about himself and his problems, he says—"when I began to look outside myself and saw the poetry had an impact on other people."
Brown's poems about chubby girls on roller skates and love as a kind of magic that makes his friends disappear have taken him on eight national book tours and four in Europe. He won the California Independent Book Critics' Award for poetry in 2004, and he has six first-place slam finishes under his belt. And, like near-death experiences, Brown has always found inspiration in odd places. Take the Diff'rent Strokes allusions mixed with domestic abuse in his poem Crawling to the Chorus:
"I wondered about the lucky black boy's life/How could he have known that while his show ran that night/And the fan mail poured in/And the money dripped down/And his family met at a Champagne fortress for the airing party/That my mother was bleeding profusely during episode 3 season 2?"
"I'm not one of those hippie weirdos who just stares at you and talks about the glaciers in your eyes and how your epic nose docks against my ass and blah-blah-blah," says Brown about his unique subject matter. "I often feel things strongly, then just let them go. I also like to vacation without a camera. To feel it . . . then let it go."
"Derrick has been a lucky charm for the Orange County poetry scene," Netifee says. "His magic is in his ability to rescue a poetry reading from itself. When he's around, we all take ourselves less seriously and reconnect with the best part of the art form, which is its ability to transform the ordinary into something profound, joyful, sexy and funny."
So does the Nashville resident miss his old hoods? "Orange County has always been on the verge of being gut-splitting amazing as a writers' community," Brown says. "I was there in the '90s, and I was blessed to launch during that special time. The venues seem harder to hold now. But I feel it was Long Beach that really cut me—those downtown alleys, working the gondolas in Naples . . . I sometimes miss the lurking. There's a lot of dark spots in Long Beach."
"I'm Not Dead Yet! A Benefit for Derrick Brown" at the Gypsy Lounge, 23600 Rockfield Blvd., Lake Forest, (949) 206-9990; www.brownpoetry.com. Mon., 7:30 p.m. Donations suggested; one drink minimum. Dance party to follow. 21+.
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