Sunday, April 20, 2003

Transcendentally good readings at Gimme! Coffe last night from Nada Gordon, Gary Sullivan, and Kazim Ali. Nada and Gary did a tag-team reading meant to be reminiscent of a kind of ancient Muslim poetry slam whose name I can neither remember nor spell if I could remember it—Gary, if you read this, send me an explanatory e-mail. Anyhow, it was terrific: they both have charisma to spare, and Nada adds an unearthly singing voice to the mix, so that the evening was much more reminiscent of performance art than of the typical poetry reading. Highlights: Gary read his great Google poem, "Fuck Bush," and a love poem about his courtship of Nada. Nada read a number of poems from V. Imp. (which I was sad to learn were not for sale, though I did pick up Foreignn Bodie and Are Not Our Lowing Heifers Sleeker than Night-Swollen Mushrooms?, both by Nada, as well as Gary's How to Proceed in the Arts and Kazim's chapbook Unravelled), the most stunning of which was, as she said, the only thing she'd been able to write in response to Sept. 11, which had then become a kind of ferocious elegy for Rachel Corrie, which has now become a kind of all-purpose mourning song for the wreckage our government has strewn throughout the Middle East. I can't remember the title but it featured two characters named Mule and Ostrich and was unbearably sad and funny by turns. I found the experience of the reading to be very moving, exciting, and a little intimidating: they're both pushing so much harder against the boundaries of what poetry can be than most of the poets I've been in contact with. Their way of reading and writing presents a challenge to me that I feel is somewhat similar to the challenge implicitly posed by Ammiel Alcalay's interview with Benjamin Hollander in the back of Alcalay's book from the warring factions, which I'm reading right now for Jonathan Monroe's class. Basically it's a demand for engaged poetry; but whereas Alcalay demands engagement with the larger, non-American, non-English speaking world, the full-throated orality of Gary and especially Nada's performances demands that the poet engage with his or her whole body in front of an audience. It's full-contact poetry and I wonder if I quite have the chops for it.

Kazim's reading came as something of a relief in this context, because his work is more conventionally lyrical—which is not to say that his reading wasn't stunning, because it was. Achingly beautiful and witty poems about desire and the ways it opens you to the world in sometimes painful ways. He also, in synch with the present-in-spirit Gabe Gudding, delivered a haunting rendition of Yoko Ono's "Mulberry." It's a one-word song in which the word is repeated and stretched and agonized and then somehow healed through repetition—moaning, gasping, orgasmic, despairing, starving, soothing. At the end of his reading he talked about a poem called "Danger" that everyone was telling him to keep out of his manuscript—because it's too simple? too naked—but damnit, it was his favorite poem and it was staying in there. Then he read the poem and all I remember are the last words, which in the constellation of his previous poems had taken on astonishing resonance: "the years the years."

After the reading (organized as usual by the indomitable Jane Sprague—Google her and read some poems and reviews, they're terrific) I got to hang out with the poets at a Thai restaurant on the Ithaca Commons, and after they went to bed I ended up having a long talk on a streetcorner with Joel Kuszai, who is filled with so many plans and ideas for things that could be done with poetry on a collaborationist/communitarian basis that he just might be a genius of enthusiasm. "What do you want to do?" he asked me, an amazing question given the context of challenge that I feel on all sides now. I mean, I've got my book coming out, I'm getting a PhD—my little career is in motion, and that leaves me with the question, What do I want to do beyond what will grant me the security of institutional affiliation? Aside from writing (a big "aside"), what kind of cultural work do I want to do? Be a publisher? Start a magazine? Write reviews? Teach schoolkids? Something I haven't imagined? What haven't I imagined? What things, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, do I not know that I don't know, and how can I find out?

Ask not what poetry can do for you, but what you can do for poetry.

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