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Local poet Liz Mariani celebrates her first book at Rust Belt

Elizabeth Mariani is a poet and spoken word performer who has been reading, ranting, raving, and relinquishing her hold on language in Buffalo venues for over 14 years. If you’ve been to an open mic in this city, she’s probably read there.

We caught up with her between gigs to talk with her about her first book of poems: imaginary poems for my imaginary girlfriend named anabel (published by little scratch pad editions), which will be celebrated and launched at 2pm on Sunday, June 8, at Rust Belt Books. Her book will be on sale at the reading. Reading and performing with her at the event will be Marina Blitshteyn, Patrick O’Keefe, and Gary Earl Ross.

Artvoice: Tell us about the poetry and spoken word scene in Buffalo.

Liz Mariani: Well, there isn’t one poetry scene in poetry, there are many poetry scenes. It is a community with different scenes, and sometimes they intermesh. There is something evolving here: People organize readings whether they’re professional and amateur; some are involved in poetics, and some just coming into it find solace and family in the performance scene. There isn’t one specific place that you have to go to. It’s very organic, very unique, and very Buffalo.

AV: What do you mean by “very Buffalo”?

LM: I use it as an adjective to describe the way that the scene within the scene is growing, that it’s like no other, it doesn’t have an imitation, and isn’t trying to imitate anything else. Its kind of like a jade plant, it grows and it’s strong. You don’t have to attend to it all the time. You don’t have to go to every poetry reading, you can leave and come back, come to it in your own way, and it doesn’t need tons of maintenance. But it does need some attention, just like a jade plant.

Liz Mariani

AV: How did you get involved in spoken word poetry?

LM: There have been three waves of poetry in my life. I began writing when I was 11. At age 19 I quit college and moved from Angola to University Heights. A friend of mine, Jason Peters (aka JP Soul, now a San Francisco DJ), had an open mic at the Coffee Bean Café (now the Shango restaurant). This was in 1994. I ran his “Wired for Words” series after he left. I had a reputation for being abrasive and moody, and swearing a lot in my performance. At that time I didn’t read anywhere else.

The second wave began after I moved back to Western New York and performed at the EM Tea Coffee Cup series run by James Cooper III. Every Tuesday I would drive up from Gowanda. I was suffering from depression at the time. It was a painful period in my life, and poetry was personal therapy to me. It was like my church, my community, because I felt so alienated in Gowanda. I could talk about life in Montreal, about violence, about rape. I was welcomed, and I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for that support. It was difficult to read about these things, not because the open mic environment was harsh, but because there were only a couple of women talking about their own pain, their own struggle. Some girls were waiting for someone to give them authenticity, and some girls were just playing a role. I was trying to survive. I talked about men, but I wasn’t trying to tell off the guy I used to date. One of the strong women was Vonetta T. Rhodes, who would lay it all out there, connecting to her ancestors despite her struggles with men. We would say it all. At that time I used to read at Sensations Night Club’s readings hosted by Martin Bryant.

The third wave began in 2007, when DJ Zuk asked me to read at the Allen Street Hardware Café in February, and Aaron Lowinger asked me to read at the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair—Mark Goldman was there, and I subsequently started “Spoken Word Sundays.”

AV: What takes place at a reading to make it so important for you?

LM: A reading has a different kind of energy. I am asked to go into a zone that calls on a different level of spirituality, a different level of consciousness, and a voice that really isn’t my own and just comes through me. I used to scare my mother with my writing. She didn’t understand it—like why I was writing in the voice of a slave when very young. The first poem I ever got attention for when I wrote a poem in “slave speak” in the voice of slave that was being beaten. Mr. Dash embarrassed me by reading it in front of the whole class. I used to write in different handwritings. I’m very sensitive to other energies and spirits. I take the process of education very seriously, and so I write in order to say thank you, I perform to say thank you, and identifying as a poet is one of the only ways, other than being an Italian-American woman and bisexual, that I have identity.

AV: How do you feel about people who insists that poetry, as an art form, has nothing to do with emotional and spiritual catharsis?

LM: They’re dead.

AV: What is poetry’s place in these times?

LM: First of all, anyone not aware of these times is in a state of oblivion or denial, or in such a position of privilege they can make the choice not to engage. We live in a time omnipresent censorship covering up the war and wars within and outside the US, when the state of the earth’s health is critical, when there is a hoarding of resources going on, and last but not least, there are these shiny new cameras with fancy blue lights all over our fair queen city of Buffalo, New York. These times are very pivotal. Poetry is an overlooked resource for survival, for communication, and for connecting. Poetry is cheapest medium in capitalistic terms, but is very heavy in spiritual currency. People are separated from one another by a lot of things—cars, suburban existence, economic gaps, and fast-paced lives—so poetry’s purpose is to bring people together, even if the poem is about rejection and separating from others. Poetry is a form of storytelling, it gives a voice to what otherwise would be silenced.

Poetry is not easy, it’s not glamorous, does not have airbrushed cleavage, but it is essential. Poetry is a fever: the best epidemic to have hit Buffalo since elm disease. Poetry can be a disease, a curse, and yet, the closest I’ve ever come to having a religious experience has been through my writing.

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