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Underwater Poems, playing this weekend at Flashpoint’s Mead Theatre Lab in Chinatown, is a poetry reading, a concert, and and a gallery piece rolled into an elegy. Henry Mills, the 25-year-old poet and musician who designed the show, developed it as a tribute to a childhood friend who committed suicide, though it isn’t a funeral, he says.
Mills, who grew up in Silver Spring, says Underwater Poems “lives somewhere between a spoken-word reading and a theater performance.” The show, directed by the actress Jenifer Deal, stars Mills reading seven of his poems, though only the first and last are about his friend Kevin Hammer, who died in 2009.
“Kevin was a poet, artist, and sometimes musician,” says Mills, who plays guitar in the post-hardcore band Voyage in Coma. “We liked hardcore and metal. We used to sit in my room practicing screaming.”
Besides the readings, Underwater Poems features a live soundtrack by the Clarksville-based composer Stephen Fleg and Mills’ bandmate Ryan Carmody and a compilation of video clips featuring old poets like John Berryman and Anne Sexton. Some of it is played to amplify the elegiac mood; other parts provide comic relief, such as a bit of Berryman’s poem “Life, friends, is boring,” which features this verse:
“Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes as bad as Achilles”
Mills, who works at the after-school education company Higher Achievement in Arlington, got a big bump last year when he was included in the children’s and young-adult poet Naomi Shihab Nye‘s anthology Time You Let Us In: 25 Poets Under 25. The two met when they were scheduled to appear together at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival. But Mills was not expecting to encounter Nye’s audience comprised mostly of elementary-school students. Rather than read the young crowd one of his more mature pieces about his family’s history in El Salvador, Mills pulled out a more age-appropriate poem.
“I read a poem called ‘Henry the Horse,’ which is more kid-friendly,” he says. “But I’m trying to move away from that.”
At Mead Theater Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G Street NW. (866) 811-4111. $10. Click here for tickets.
Photo by C. Stanley.