Monday, March 07, 2005

So, what can I tell you? Took the bus down Wednesday morning reading the new Zukofsky issue Chicago Review most of the way. Splendid stuff, plus some poems that knocked me out by a poet I hadn't heard of before named Kristy Odelius. She's one to watch. Arrived in NYC and met up with my sweetie and proceeded to get nervouser and nervouser as the afternoon wore on. I usually get some nerves before a reading but these were much more intense than usual. My dad arrived from New Jersey and took us to a nice dinner that I could barely taste. It was a short walk from there to the New School's Tischman Auditorium, which does indeed look like a series of recessed eggs. Met everybody but I want to give special shout-outs to the folks I managed to exchange more than three words with: Eric Baus, Dan Chiasson, Mark Bibbins, Cathy Hong, Ilya Kaminsky, Adrian Matejka, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Srikanth Reddy (he has a nickname that I have no idea how to spell: chee-ku?), Justin Goldberg, and Joshua Poteat. Dorothea Tanning did not show up the first night, and when she showed up the second she was, well, very very old. She stayed in the audience while Richard Howard read her poems (very well) and then stood up to acknowledge the crowd's applause. I didn't have the heart to bother her. I also met Alice Quinn, the PSA president and poetry editor of The New Yorker; she was rather charmingly running around with a water pitcher and some plastic cups and poured some pre-reading water for me. Then came the introductions and although I was close to hyperventilating at this point I did mentally record these blurb-like impressions of the readers preceding me:

Eric Baus read in a soft voice from new work and from his strange and lovely book, The To Sound. Birds taking flight with a girl's doll in their claws.

Mark Bibbins got up and read funny, angry poems, starting with one that he announced he'd hoped to retire after the elections in November. I picked up his book, Sky Lounge.

Sherwin Bitsui, a Native American poet new to me who used to live on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. He read with what I can only call, cliches be damned, a burning intensity. "This morning I was in the desert," he deadpanned. "The city is... different."

Lanky and engaging, Oni Buchanan read a mix of new work and poems from her book, What Animal. Incandescent, surreal, with flashes of humor.

Dan Chiasson, who looks like a friendlier Russell Crowe, skipped his first book The Afterlife of Objects entirely in favor of poems from a new manuscript forthcoming from Knopf, Natural History, all inspired by the writings of Pliny the Elder. Funny and sad, even wrenching, and far more self-referential than I would have expected (in a good way). I especially liked his elephant poems and the poem titled "Randall Jarrell."

At this point yours truly stood up and blinked into the bright lights at the couple hundred people in the audience. I read a sampler: a prose poem from Fourier Series, "Night of the Worm-Men" from Selah, a Severance Song, and one of my new prose poems, "Yellow" (it's on the blog somewheres and will also be appearing in the forthcoming festival tie-in issue of LIT). Went over pretty well, I think.

I was somewhat more relaxed and able to take in the reading by Thomas Sayers Ellis, who is one hell of a smooth performer. He did this brilliant trick while reading of cocking his head to one side while reading italicized words and syllables. One of his poems, "All Their Stanzas Look Alike," was a funny and relentless indictment of what you might call the unbearable whiteness of the po-biz (the poem is up at Callaloo but you need access to Project Muse to read it). His book is The Maverick Room.

Miranda Field was next to read a poetry of the luminous image with her slight British accent. Exhaustion was settling in at this point; as Reen points out, twelve poets is a bit of a slog, even when it's only ten.

The last poets were chapbook fellows: a redheaded woman named K.E. Allen whose book was chosen by Robert Creeley and a guy in glasses who introduced himself as "Josh Junior," Joshua Poteat, whose book was chosen by Mary Oliver. I actually found his work to be much more engaging, at least in the ear; Allen's poetry seems meant more for the page. And then it was over. Beers in the lobby. Shouting. I chatted a little with Mark Levine, who was a prof of mine at the University of Montana for one semester before decamping for Iowa. Then the whole unruly mob of us went to the Cedar Tavern for more drinks and in my case at least a cheeseburger to make up for my barely touched dinner. It's kind of a blur after that, though I do remember arguing about modernism with one of last year's Festival poets, Tess Taylor. And so to bed.

The next day was very pleasant, if cold. I got to see some of the remaining Gates and was even given a piece of "saffron" cloth as a souvenir by one of the volunteer docents. Emily and I met my cousin Hal and his partner John for breakfast and afterward Emily and Hal and I went to see the new MoMA. Rather confusingly laid-out, I thought. We spent most of our time there talking, but we did manage to sneak in and see the new Thomas Demand exhibition on a members-only day. That evening it was much easier to take in the readers, though I was still unaccountably nervous—chalk it up to social anxiety. Again, some impressions:

Cathy Park Hong was forced to correct Alice Quinn, who had introduced her as being from Vietnam, but she did it with considerable grace. She read from her book, Translating Mo'um, which takes some cues from Thereas Hak Kyung Cha as far as cut-ups and an overall sense of being entangled in webs of history and dicourse are concerned. I bought her book and intend to read it closely.

Once again, Ilya Kaminsky brought down the house—and it was a much more substantial house, this time. Emily was in tears and I suspect she wasn't the only one as he read from his elegy for Mandelstam, "Musica Humana." Once again he'd gone to the trouble of putting a hardcopy of the poem into the hands of his audience (photocopies, this time). I've shed my ambivalence about this: his accent is quite thick and it would be very hard to understand what he was saying without the text if you weren't used to his voice. Also, he's such a powerful and nuanced reader that I don't find the text as distracting from the experience of the moment as I would with some other poets. It was a highlight if not the highlight of the two nights' readings for me.

Adrian Matejka self-deprecatingly introduced himself as "not as smart" as the other poets we'd heard. A poet of mixed African-American and Caucasian identity, he moved me with a poem about resisting "the Man" only to realize that both his mother and himself were themselves "the Man." There was also a funny poem about Al Green and his unparalleled ability to melt women's undergarments. Adrian's book is called The Devil's Garden.

Chelsey Minnis was next and she was dark, dark, dark. I was fascinated by a series of "Prefaces" she'd written to her next manuscript (I recommend her first book, Zirconia)—there were literally dozens of them; perhaps they'll comprise the entire book. Her persona is wracked with wry self-loathing, quite a lot of which spills on to poetry itself as a demeaned and even demeaning artistic practice—redeemed, if only partially, by its connection to the erotic. It was a compelling and occasionally uncomfortable performance.

Srikanth Reddy did a very smooth performance of a longish poem from his book Facts for Visitors, Fundamentals of Esperanto. He got some laughs for his detached, clinical descriptions of that made-up language, which worked in tension with some of the things he was saying with that language ("
La bonaj amiko estas ie. The good friend is here.").

Spencer Reece, immaculate in a pinstriped Brooks Brothers suit (as well you would expect), read the title poem from A Clerk's Tale. I'm not sure what I think of the poetry in itself, but his dignity and personal story add up to something quite moving. Just ordered his book and I'll take a closer look at what he's up to then. Emily had a long private conversation with him at the dinner afterwards and says he's a delightful person.

As I mentioned about, Richard Howard got up to read two of Dorothea Tanning's poems. The Queen of the Aubergines writes very well, I have to say. Her book is A Table of Content.

Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon (what a mouthful!) skipped her first book (Black Swan) in favor of new poems. Her aesthetic is fairly conservative and loaded with classical references, but she reads with dash and fervor and a touching degree of vulnerability. She read a funny sestina about a recurring nightmare she has about eating everything at a giant buffet that I suspect many women have (in fact, she asked the audience about this and I think I remember a show of hands). The erotic and/or subjective status of black women's bodies is a preoccupation of hers, as evidenced by another poem she wrote about Romare Bearden's nudes. I was most struck by the last poem, "Andromeda," which like Chelsey's poems struggles to overcome a burden of social disregard—in this case deriving from Rae's having grown up feeling herself not to be a conventionally attractive African American woman. (For the record, she's quite stunning.)

The last readers were the other two chapbook award winners, Andrea Baker (Claudia Rankine's pick) and Justin Goldberg (Henri Cole's pick). Once again, fatigue had set in too deeply for me to register much of their readings, which is a great disservice to those poets—maybe next time they should start with the chapbook readers? Of course as a Claudia Rankine fan I'm interested in what Baker is up to, but I think she was another poet-of-the-page.

Finally it was over and we all took off for dinner at Cafe Lupe (sp?) with the PSA picking up the tab. That was a fun dinner. I had a nice long chat with Rae, who's very sweet and very smart, and Emily and I decided to have her over to dinner soon. Also chatted with Mark Bibbins and his sweet boyfriend Brian, Dan Chiasson, and Robert Polito of the New School—he's convinced that the barriers between mainstream and avant-garde are breaking down as a new generation with little invested in the old poetry wars is coming to the fore. I kind of hope he's right, although I'd probably want to say "modernist" rather than avant-garde. The avant-garde by definition cannot be co-opted, though it can and does disappear from time to time. I'm still finding the basic definition of art that challenges its own situation as art to be a useful description for avant-garde activity. But I myself am probably just a twenty-first century modernist. The food was free and they kept pouring wine, so I got a little tipsy. It was a remarkably relaxed atmosphere and I felt there was very little of the high school-style competitive bitchiness that I had sort of expected. Everyone was very friendly and complimentary and relieved to have the actual reading over with. I would have liked to talk some more to Ilya but his hearing impairment makes that difficult in a crowded space. It was probably around one AM that Emily and I made our way back to the hotel, where we slept very well indeed.

What a privilege to be included in an event of this scale! I only wish they hadn't scheduled the whole thing for midweek; I think we would have gotten an even larger audience on the weekend. On the other hand, I would have been even more nervous, then. Still, I'm very grateful and feel it's a sign of good things to come. STILL feeling exhausted by it and the dissertation and all—and this weekend won't give me much chance to rest, either—one of my commmittee members, Jonathan Monroe, has organized a major conference featuring Leslie Scalapino, Anne Carson, Norma Cole, and other poetry luminaries. Plus we at SOON are very excited to have Peter Gizzi and Elizabeth Willis visitng us to read on Saturday. More information about all this as it comes. But now I think it's time to shelve some books or maybe just stare at the ceiling for a while.

1 comment:

Ivy said...

Thanks for the poetry reading report. I shall keep an eye out for the poets you've mentioned.

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