The sound of one fan clapping

I knew that Orlando's poetic community was relatively small, but this was ridiculous. As I entered Performance Space Orlando last Friday night, I was startled to find Gregory Patrick -- the evening's featured entertainer -- hanging red Christmas lights from the ceiling and dispensing wine to an audience that, even at five minutes to showtime, didn't number in the double digits. At first blush, it seemed as if Patrick had unexpectedly canceled his reading, opting instead to hold an intimate, impromptu happy hour for a few of his closest friends. A surprise party? For me? You shouldn't have!

Patrick deserved better. After a protracted absence from the spoken-word circuit, he was embarking on the first steps of a media blitz tied to the publication of his new autobiography, "My Lovely Foe" (The Orotund Group). A healthy turnout would have set that ball rolling rather effectively, while serving as a hearty "welcome back" to the world of live performance. But Winnie Wenglewick, PSO's owner and spiritual guru, had left town for the week without changing the message on the venue's answering machine, ensuring that curious callers were mistakenly given information about the previous weekend's "7th Chakra: Pieces From the Vision Bell" instead of Patrick's grand return.

Not even a single bulb's worth of light had been provided to illuminate the building's humble exterior. With no indication that anything was going on inside, the already unobtrusive PSO (a tiny, makeshift black-box theater attached to Wenglewick's hairdressing salon) totally vanished into the run of sleepy motels and darkened offices just south of Loch Haven Park. What was that old saying about a lone voice crying in the wilderness?

Patrick gamely put off showtime as long as he could without irritating the few fans and friends who had made it out. He was waiting, he told us, for the arrival of a two-person camera crew whose presence would help bring an in-development film version of "My Lovely Foe" closer to fruition. But as the minutes flew by, and even they hadn't arrived, he decided to give up the ghost. With barely a word of introduction, Patrick's invocation began.

A kind of hush

Seated at a card table in front of the room's longer wall, the twisted prophet read quietly but rapidly from his just-published manifesto, discarding its pages onto the floor as he finished with them. A quartet of candles (two decorated with images of Catholic icons) lit up his face as he drank wine and chain-smoked his way through excerpts from the self-searching "Foe."

That tome heralds something of a directional shift in Patrick's work, a slow but sure maturation from literary shock tactics into a more personal, honest approach. On Friday, however, he chose to highlight only certain passages from the book's tale of sin and (you guessed it) redemption, plunging directly into its most skin-crawling section: a vivid, lurid description of the homosexual debauchery to be found inside Orlando's own Parliament House. Asserting that its smorgasbord of hedonistic pleasures would "make Caligula blush," the former patron did nothing to ingratiate himself with the club's management -- or its lawyers. After listening to his litany of perverse experiences there, I didn't doubt the wisdom of his decision to shoot the upcoming film's Parliament House scenes in an unnamed hotel instead of on location, relying on the real thing for exterior pick-up shots only. Still, his crew had better be prepared to set new records for the 100-yard dash if they're spotted by a doorman who's happened to read the book.

Though thematically important, the Parliament House anecdotes went on too long and reveled in an unrelenting detail that was less bracing than simply numbing. This, for me, has always been a flaw in Patrick's work -- he always seems to believe that he's shocking me more than he actually is. I sometimes wonder which boat he thinks his audience has just stepped off of.

Far more moving was the poet's portrayal of his relationship with a trusting young man whose physical perfection, Patrick remembered with self-mocking irony, was to make him "the jewel in my crown." If we haven't all been there, we've at least watched it happen from a vantage point two barstools down. It rang true.

As Act One neared its end, a few stragglers arrived through the front door. A pair of young women tried to be unobtrusive as they found their way to empty seats (of which there were legion).

"It's girls," Patrick deadpanned. "Pity."

Hot on their heels were the budding filmmakers we had earlier given up on: David Pelley, whose black T-shirt and bleached-blond hair screamed Rutger Hauer, and Kristin Ashe, his punkette Kewpie doll of a partner. Ashe at least had an excuse for her tardiness, having spent the day in the hospital getting both an EEG and an MRI.

At intermission, the young women explained that they had become lost on the way to PSO by relying on a flier that had misprinted the venue's address. That light bulb would really have come in handy, I reflected.

The gang's all hear

The rest of the audience found it easy to make conversation during the break, and with good reason: They all seemed to know Patrick personally. Marble Feather bassist Paul Sanders said that he had once worked at Terror on Church Street with the still-green performance artist, and a Bettie Page look-alike who referred to herself only as "Peni" had met him when she played "his first dead wife" in a long-ago production of "Blithe Spirit."

Even an old pal could have found his mind wandering a bit during the second portion of the program, in which Patrick detailed the religious awakening he had undergone while living the life of a thieving prostitute in Key West. The episode dragged, repeating its philosophical points one too many times and indulging in a navel-gazing inner monologue that set new records for the use of the words "I," "me" and "my." Self-awareness may be the key to the development of Patrick's craft, but self-absorption will not be.

I was surprised that the poet totally ignored the monastery stay that receives so much ink in "My Lovely Foe," as it's one of the most notable elements of his story (and will be a major segment in the film, from what I'm told). During the informal Q&A that followed the reading, Patrick explained that he was wary of unduly exploiting the "sexual/theological" dichotomy that Madonna has ridden into the land of milk and money. So what was with those candles, then?

After the last question had been answered, I walked outside with Patrick to get some more background on one of the book's key passages, which he had only hinted at tonight. In it, the author admits that much of his previous work had been delivered on high-decibel autopilot, a shrieking display of psycho-acoustics that was designed to assault rather than to communicate.

Yes, he told me, his days of playing the banshee game were over. No more howling, no more keeping his weight at 120 pounds to stay in cadaverous character, no more shaving of the head. It had all felt like ...

"Like a logo?" I asked.

Yes, that was it.

One of Wenglewick's emissaries then showed up to politely shoo us off the premises. The Lip Service poetry slam that was to follow Patrick's performance had been axed, leaving those of us with a heavy spoken-word jones to wait for Tuesday's edition of The Backroom Words, the former Go Lounge mainstay that recently returned to downtown action at the new Walk the Dog.

Pelley's and Ashe's plans to shoot some postshow make-up footage were likewise lost in the shuffle. Instead, the tight-knit band of arts gypsies piled into a waiting car to go live it up a bit at Barbarella. Though peace and quiet are staples of a great poet's creative diet, I couldn't fault Patrick for not wanting to eat them every day.

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