Ask three-time slam poetry world champion Buddy Wakefield why he started writing poetry, and he doesn't exactly know how to answer. After a few seconds' pause, all he could offer was, “Magnets.”
“It's a matter of attraction,” he eventually added. “There is no why…I just do poetry.”
That attraction has propelled Wakefield not only to win championships, but to perform spoken word at hundreds of venues around the world as well as create several books and CDs. This Tuesday, Wakefield, who is now based in Los Angeles but grew up in Baytown and attended Sam Houston State University, will perform his poetry as part of an An Evening With Buddy Wakefield, at Montrose's AvantGarden. Houston Poet Laureate Robin Davidson, among others, will also perform.
Wakefield's poetry often centers around messages of release and redemption, as well as the firm belief that, he said, “We are not tragedies.” And Wakefield knows a little something about those themes: In 2001, at 27, Wakefield woke up one day and, he said, realized he was only going to live once. “Right now is what counts, right now is exactly what I need to be concerned with,” he recalled thinking. So, naturally, Wakefield sold or gave away all of his possessions in order to live in his car – a not-so-roomy Honda Civic – and toured the United States performing spoken word.
“I had announced I was going to go on the road for two years for poetry and develop a network and prove I could be a touring artist as a poet. And about two weeks into that, I wanted to go home so bad,” Wakefield said. “I was so over it. But I had already opened up my big mouth so I didn't give up…I slept in that Civic in probably every rest area of America.”
He ended up spending two years and change on the road, performing at schools and cafes across the country. But the tour didn't keep Wakefield's poetry career from eventually sputtering. By 2004, Wakefield had temporarily given up his touring life and was working four different jobs, including bartending and demonstrating products at Whole Foods, to make ends meet. Unsurprisingly, he hated it.
That year, Wakefield said, marked the first time the spoken word giant Poetry Slam Inc. held its first Individual World Poetry Slam championship, but he didn't have the money to go. So he decided to write a man he'd once auditioned for: Norman Lear, the writer of massive '70s and '80s sitcoms like All in the Family and The Jeffersons, explaining his situation and asking if there was a way he could maybe help.
And Lear called him back.
“I had broke down crying in a post office that day. Well, silently weeping is more like it, because I was overwhelmed and discouraged and ready to give up everything,” Wakefield said. Still, he pulled himself together and had gone over to a friend's house to work on one of his jobs – launching a talent agency for spoken word artists – when the phone rang. The person on the other end of the line asked if Buddy Wakefield was there.
“And I said, 'This is he,” Wakefield remembered. "And he said, 'Raise your right hand.' So I did. And no one was there [at the house]. And he said, 'Repeat after me.' He said, 'My name is Buddy Wakefield.' And I said, 'My name is Buddy Wakefield.' He said, 'Okay, I was just making sure. This is Norman Lear.' And of course I jumped out of my body.”
Lear offered to pay to send Wakefield to the world finals, which Wakefield ended up winning. Because of his victory at the American worlds, he was then invited to compete in the European version in the Netherlands.
“And I accidentally won that one. And then I also accidentally won the second world finals in the U.S. and I've just been going ever since,” Wakefield said. Though he hasn't competed in a poetry slam since 2008, Wakefield has now written numerous books, including a magazine aimed at chicken keepers called Henhouse. (Yes, like Penthouse. Its cover teases articles like “Coops! There It Is.”) He's also released spoken word albums through Righteous Babe Records, the label of singer Ani DiFranco, whom Wakefield once toured with as her opening act.
In 2014, Wakefield embarked on a 16-month-long world tour, playing roughly 250 shows everywhere from Iceland to Australia. He had just ended a long-term relationship and sold his home. It was, he said, “a lot” to handle at once.
“It taxed me more than anything ever had…Nothing was worth the lack of kindness I felt towards myself. And it was certainly informing my writing,” Wakefield said. He explained, “Darkness is a super-artsy concept. Crazy is an easy word to say. But to be living those things is an altogether different beast, and I didn't want to take that beast with me one more step.”
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So he took his savings from the tour and moved from Seattle, his longtime home, to Los Angeles. He started meditating every day – Wakefield lists the practice of vipassana as one of his “thanks” on his website – pursuing acting, and found himself actually enjoying writing again. He has a new book coming out in 2017, a new CD that should be finished by 2018 at the latest, and just finished the 13th draft of a movie screenplay.
At the Houston event this Tuesday, some of that new work will be heard: Wakefield said he'll likely perform four new pieces, accompanied by a keyboardist and a gospel singer. He's most excited, though, for his Texas family and friends to attend the show, to get a taste of what he's been up to for the past 15 years.
“I think people hear the word 'poetry' and their whole body rolls their eyes,” Wakefield said, adding, “I love showing people how not boring it is.”
An Evening with Buddy Wakefield starts at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, at Avant Garden, 411 Westheimer. Tickets are $10 and are available online at Wakefield's website, buddywakefield.com, and at Savannah Blue Arts and Outreach's website, savannahblue.org.