The Energy Engine of Buddy Wakefield: Arguably the Most Successful Spoken Word Poet on the Road
by Suzy La Follette
Meeting up with Buddy Wakefield was like colliding with a comet in an unexplored galaxy. Here he was right in front of me at the Blue Dahlia Café in east Austin with his old college roommate, Mike Marcionetti. Mike played the ukulele later on that night while Buddy performed a few of his poems. Buddy was wearing a Write Bloody T-shirt (his publisher) and a baseball cap pulled tight but not blocking his ever-telling blue eyes. The last time I saw him we chatted briefly after a poetry slam in Seattle, the city he vaguely calls his hometown. Before that, I saw him in Albuquerque, New Mexico, 2005 at the National Poetry Slam. He was competing solo that year because he has been touring since 2001. Yes, for the past decade. It’s a feat many spoken word poets have attempted to do but none of them as successfully as Buddy Wakefield. He won the Individual World Poetry Slam not once, but twice, consecutively, featured on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, and accompanied Ani Difranco on her past two tours, opening for her across the country. He has embodied the idea of a rock-star-poet. So, yes, he is a comet, and yes, his streaking light is exploring uncharted territories.
The day that he sat in front of me with a cup of tomato soup was the day that Gentleman Practice—his second book with Write Bloody—was sent to the printer. It’s now available at WriteBloody.com. Buddy Wakefield is the kind of poet that can capture the human experience in a moment, slow it down, examine it and bring his audience along with him, leaving them forever changed. In performance he is captivating, allowing the audience to see all of his strengths and vulnerabilities, enticing every audience member to fall in love with him. Signing books after the show that night he walked around the merchandise table and gave every single person a hug with their purchase. That’s the kind of man, and poet, that he is.
Buddy Wakefield: Okay, let’s do this. But casually, organically. Let’s pretend that I am eating soup.
Suzy La Follette: Ten years ago when you quit your job—as an executive assistant at a biomedical firm—and took off to be a poet, there were very few poets making a living with spoken word. Was your goal to make a living or to tour, regardless?
BW: I can’t say that I was mature enough to have set many definitive goals. I did the math and realized if I get $50 to $100 bucks a night plus sell chapbooks, on average I’m going to make a hundred dollars a night which is a ten hour a day, ten dollar an hour job with no taxes taken out. I won’t have rent because I will be living in my car, so I’ll be making just as much as I already am, with my college degree. And living out my little dream, my little delusion of rock star grandeur, um…as a poet. So I just did it. I booked it two months out.
SL: At that time you hadn’t even won any national competitions.
BW: In fact, I hadn’t even made it on a slam team. I tried twice to make the Seattle team and I hadn’t even made the team. The national finals had just been in Seattle, and I opened for the [independent competition] that year, and I nailed the performance. Everybody in the slam community was there. I was a nobody.
BW: On the west coast, the people in Seattle believed in me. I was on the bottom of the food chain. And now I think that everybody tours because they know they can. There is a network and features get paid $50 to $100 bucks.
SL: It sounds like the community that you were in Seattle was a big part of you being confident enough to tour.
BW: They provided the platform. I wasn’t making the best choices; you have to remember I was 23-24 years old. There was a point when I moved to Seattle and I was on a three-day binger in my kitchen writing, pacing the kitchen back and forth and smoking a cigarette, blowing it out the window, as if I wasn’t getting any smoke in my house. It was my first apartment by myself, this tiny little thing. I froze in my tracks when I was done writing because I was so thrilled with what I had written. And I had this, this flash of a vision. An audience of thousands of people clapping at what I had just read and I thought, “Dude you have all these big ideas about things, but could you ever really get up in front of that many people and do this?’ I sat with that for a minute until I calmed down and when I calmed down, I remember going, “yeah, yeah, I could.” But there were terrified parts of myself because I was so wrapped up in this scary self-indulgent part of it. It wasn’t about the crowd or anything. It was about me getting past these fears.
SL: So success was terrifying. You were scared to “make it”.
BW: I knew I was going to. There was an energy engine inside me going, “Do this. Do this. You have something here, and people are responding to it in a positive way that reaffirms that you’re not nuts. You’re on the right path, and that your ideals are great.” At that point, I wasn’t practicing any of my high ideals. I was just talking them. I am happy to be in a place now where I am practicing them quite a bit more. I obviously haven’t reached enlightenment yet, but…
SL: How do you work out your tour schedule? You have been doing this since 2001, for ten fucking years, how is this possible?
BW: I am a bit of a neat freak. I am really organized. That’s where it stops for most folks because they actually have to work, and it’s a non-stop grind. I still pay my own health insurance, I still make sure that there is money coming in. If a college from Indiana calls and says, “We want you to come out. We are going to fly you out to do this gig,” then, while I am out there, I rent a car and make sure that I book things that are close by. I can book 7-8 gigs. The “Gentleman Practice” tour is the first solo tour I have done since I lived in my car in 2003. I book everything myself, sell all my own merchandise, drive 4-8 hours a day. I am dealing with 43 shows right now, and then having the energy to stay healthy and be on stage every night. I am stoked about the challenge and the opportunity, also to reflect on, what it was like in the beginning when Motel 6 was a super splurge. But it’s also ten years later, and Hotwire.com exists.
SL: When you are on the road for years I suppose couch surfing doesn’t cut it. You have family here in Texas to stay with, right? Are they coming to the show?
BW: Most of them came to the Houston show the other night. I will have cousins here tonight. (During his show he called out his cousins from the stage for showing up stoned.)
SL: Does your family support what you do?
BW: They do. They didn’t get it at first, and then HBO happened. Things they could relate to happened along the way. My mom has been pretty supportive no matter what, but she has to. That’s like…a requirement. So, I was getting, “go for it” from a surface level, while they were thinking, “God what is he doing?” But I think they are all happy with it now. And the family that is here tonight saw me with Ani Difranco in April, and I it was…just a fantastic evening.
SL: Were you in Austin with Ani?
BW: Twice, once at Stubbs and once at Paramount.
SL: How did that come about? Was that from Def Poetry Jam? She was on the same show.
BW: No. I actually sat right next to her [at the Def Jam taping], and I had come to the conclusion that I should not introduce myself, because what good would that do? I should just enjoy the moment that I was sitting next to Ani Difranco and that should be good enough. “Ani is here, Common is here, Russell [Simmons] is in front of me and people are walking around.” I had been living in my car for years at that point, and I was wearing some two-year-old shoes, some cut off Dickies, and a 50 cent thrift store t-shirt, and everyone else was just looking stellar. I felt like fucking Mollie Ringwald in Pretty and Pink. But I never met Ani that day. What happened was I did an art gallery in Buffalo NY where her mom lives, and her mom saw me at the gallery. I never saw her, but she printed out my website and put it on Ani ’s doorstep and said, “You have to do something with this guy.” Ani happened to have five open dates on the west coast, and that’s what she did. Her mom had never recommended anybody before. It was one of those reaffirming moments because… Frankly, at that art gallery show I remember being a little heated inside, not heated in an angry way but heated in a way where everything is just off in your body. I remember thinking, “Gosh I wasn’t very good, but what I said came across well, so thank goodness that there’s solidarity in the words even when I am off.”
SL: Tell me about your writing process.
BW: The reason that I get to do what I do for a living is because I sacrifice an element of sanity that I think anybody who is good at anything does, whether they are diving, or playing football, or ping pong, or playing an instrument, or writing. I am absolutely obsessive compulsive about revisions and re-writing. It can take me two to three months to write a two to three minute poem.
SL: You are the only spoken word poet on Righteous Babe Records? How do her audiences receive you when you perform?
B: Fucking amazing. They are so good to me.
B: The best [experience] opening for folks is when, the audience is sitting down in a theater or an auditorium and they are focused and ready to listen. It can be hard sometimes. I never buckled, I kind of tripped out on her crowd in Omaha. No one was malicious, but everyone was really drunk, and I felt like a dancing monkey, so I just stopped and said “What the fuck?” really loud.
S: (laughing) How did that go over? What did they do?
B: They let me work it out, man. Nobody threw anything, so that’s cool. Other than that, they’ve been freakn’ phenomenal and [Ani] is walking grace. She has done me so right. She made all those little delusions of rock star grandeur come true. Rolling down the highway at 3am on a tour bus, and having my own bunk, and riding and sitting with the bus driver, and chillin’ with her crew and her band. I think the majority of people that I meet…I mean a lot of people just fill empty spaces with their words often times, but I don’t find her to be that kind of person. [Ani] speaks with good purpose and it shows in her music too.
S: Is there any other poet that is signed with this large of a record label?
S: That’s pretty ground breaking, Buddy.
B: Thank you. That’s a cool realization.
S: It’s things like that that end up paving the way for our readers at the Splinter Generation, the younger generation of writers. This gives them options.
B: I hadn’t even thought of that. Thank you.
Buddy Wakefield has averaged around a hundred shows per year for the past ten years and has toured internationally in London, Germany, Ireland, and Canada, as well as the United States. “Buddy, a Board of Directors member with Youth Speaks Seattle, is honored to be published internationally in dozens of books with work used to win multiple national collegiate debate and forensics competitions. An author of Write Bloody Publishing, Wakefield is known for delivering raw, rounded, high vibration performances of humor and heart.”