A boxer’s most important punch is the jab. It may not end a fight but it sets up everything that does, and will keep your opponent busy and force them to play defense. That momentary stun is opportunity. It takes discipline and patience. The jab now becomes the setup that all other punches follow, but keep your hands up.
So too for comics and their routines, and poets and their poems.
I was a blessed anomaly, given the gift of exposure to all three art forms. First, as a young boy whose father was a Washington D.C. Golden Gloves Middleweight, compiling a 54-5 amateur record, then turning professional at age 18. He was known as a hard-punching brawler with a strong chin, but his professional career floundered after an impressive 25-5 start. He did tell me things would have been different had he signed a contract with a bigtime, corrupt, New York promoter.
So what does a boxer do when his career is over with only a 6th grade education? He begins as a bodyguard for a local gangster, saving enough money to open a tavern in a working-class D.C. neighborhood called Anacostia, allowing me exposure to bookmakers, journeymen boxers, contenders who fought and lost title bouts, and even meeting a great Heavyweight Champion, Joe Louis.
Imagine a young boy, hanging out in his father’s tavern, greeted with a playful, quick slap to the face and told; “Get those hands up.”
My whole life has been full of jabs, and keeping my hands up.
Those boxers had large, remarkably fast hands. I also saw a tragic side to some of those hands, shaking when lifting a glass of beer to their lips. My father would say to me when I asked about it; “He took one too many punches to the head.”
I spent a lot of time alone growing up and discovered an interest in poems at the same time I hit puberty. I kept my interest in poetry hidden like a boy keeping a Playboy magazine under a mattress. I felt I had to keep it hidden from the people in the bar and my family. Didn’t think they would understand. My Uncle called it “poultry.”
Privately, I trained like a boxer, acquiring books about my passion. My prize possession was the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. I practiced as much as I could, shadow-boxed free verse to sonnets and haikus. Practiced rhymes and internal rhymes, mimicking other poets and thought about what it must have been like to be part of various movements from the Lost Generation to the Beats. I was an amateur, but kept practicing throwing jabs on paper.
Then one of those jabs got my name in the paper, they spelled it wrong, but I received a poetry award from The Maryland State Poetry Society; “BOOKMAN WINS POETRY AWARD.”
I don’t know if the Society still exist, but they paid me $25 for the first rights of publication for my poem.
A few months later, Loyola College selected me, and twelve other college poets as the best and published an anthology of our poems along with a weekend of getting together and reading our work at the campus.
It would be a long time before I would be public about poetry again. I knew I would be chosen late in life or called again to poetry or it would be just a dream deferred or as Eugene O’Neill referred to it as a “pipe dream,” in The Iceman Cometh.
Like the poetry section in bookstores, my father’s bar became a relic with few customers. With bankruptcy the only future, I was fortunate to have complete freedom to turn it into a comedy club. At the time, just a handful of clubs were open, at most five, and was far from the massive comedy club culture today.
Heard a lot of people say no one would come to Anacostia, even more so back then when it was called the “Murder Capitol of the World.”
Also at that time, when Disco was trending, the thought of a comedy club idea was similar to the reactions of getting people to come to a bar for a poetry reading.
I learned to sell into my obstacles. The stage, actually a step, was next to the door. Nobody would plan to put a door next to the performers but it actually was a unique way to train these DC amateurs. It was a punching bag for them. They quickly learned to jab at people arriving late and jab at control over for an audience. In time it became chic for some patrons to arrive late and be verbally assaulted by comics as a packed audience looked on with laughter.
As word of mouth started to spread, a movement was beginning. The phone was ringing off the hook for directions to the club and was always answered the same way by a line from comic Bill Thomas; “After you pass the Capitol, follow Pennsylvania Ave over the Sousa Bridge and when you really start to feel afraid, look to your left and that’s where we are.”
I had a hard time finding enough amateurs looking for a stage, so I had to learn to perform as well. Hard to believe but the first guy who answered my small ad in The Washington Post, fresh out of the Yale School of Drama, Lewis Black, and the youngest was a twelve year old boy named Tom Rhodes who showed up late one night to see his Uncle Bob perform and was pulled on staged. He saw and experienced an audience laughing for the first time and knew at that moment he wanted to be a comedian and he is one of the best in entertainment today.
Some went on to bigger stages, appearing in movies, TV, and some wrote for many classic TV shows like Seinfeld and Rosanne. The roots of comedy coming out of DC is more powerful now than New York or LA, with such comics like Dave Chappelle leading the way.
I was honored for the story to be written about in Rich Shydner’s recent book, “Kicking through the Ashes,” about his life as a stand-up in the 1980’s comedy boom. In it he wrote; “The place was crammed nightly. Med students from Georgetown. Midshipmen from Annapolis. Staffers from Capitol Hill. The draw was wide and the mix electric. Newly hired waitresses had to step over people in the aisles. Lines snaked down the sidewalk. Local kids were paid to watch the parked BMW’s, Mercedes-Benzes and limos with embassy plates. The fire marshal looked at the jam-packed room, ordered the back door be kept unlocked, had a beer and stayed for the show. Uniformed police officers spent their breaks watching the comedy, never checking identification or the funny cigarettes. Everyone was supportive of this miracle happening in Southeast.”
I have been called back to writing and poetry these last few years and jabbing again. The jab is the most important punch, sets up every miracle knockout.
No matter how life is throwing you some wild, haymaker punches, keep jabbing, and remember; “Get those hands up.”
Writer’s Note: (Written on phone while during a week in the Intensive Care Unit of Med Star Hospital in Washington D.C. after 7 1/2 hour open heart surgery.)