We've tapped some very special guest bloggers to help us celebrate this summer's Word for Word Poetry series at Bryant Park. They'll provide a behind-the-scenes look at each event and divulge about the talented poets who share their work. Experience Word for Word Poetry yourself every Tuesday through September 14, from 7pm to 8:30pm, at the Bryant Park Reading Room.
Mary Austin Speaker on Word for Word Poetry, June 8
Being in Bryant Park for a reading feels oddly more New York than being at other readings with their interchangeable, often institutional indoor spaces. One can’t forget the hulking library, the orderly lawn, the fountains and carousel nestled beneath Bryant Park’s tall deciduous trees. Birds swoop through on their way elsewhere, rifling the air. Poets tap into this magnified urban-ness in different ways, but most of them nod to the strange surprise of sharing space— on the subway or bus, even the baffling way that nature asserts herself over and over in the city’s parks. These often emerge as themes of city poems, which most of Tuesday’s poets read, and as long as we’re counting, three of the poets read pieces about a dying or aging relative, two read airport poems, and two read poems about the Iraq war.
Jack Lynch took the stage first, offering a group of poems that included minimalist poems about the natural world, and a series of affecting poems about the difficulty of contending with one’s aging parents. One poem offered a memory as depicted in the fragmentary medium of photographs, drawing out the gaps in remembrance. Much of Jack’s poetry felt like a drawing-out, a prolonged gesture of welcome and farewell, an appropriate mode for addressing his somber subjects.
Next up was Maya Funaro, a young poet Paul cited as a recommendation from poet Tom Sleigh, who sang her highest praises, which set her up quite a bit and she did not disappoint. She began with Gwendolyn Brooks’s always breathtaking poem, “Do Not Be Afraid of No,” and followed with a reading of solid, wandery poems that moved seamlessly between difficulty and pleasure. One poem began with the syntactic trappings of aphorisms and moved steadily from the easily digestible (“one who is warmed by the sun is not lost,”) to the utterly surreal, subtly subverting poetry’s reputation as the province of wisdom. My favorite of her offerings was a poem that works as a reading of Czeslaw Milosz’s poem, “An Honest Description of Myself with a Glass of Whiskey at an Airport, Lets Say in Minneapolis,” which depicts, in Maya’s words, “an old man peeping” at girls in miniskirts, which the speaker read as a grotesque reflection of her own outsized desires as she looked down at bending rivers and fields from her perch in the plane. The poem ended on an image that wrenched us into the realization of desire’s energizing drive and its tragic impossibility: as her plane taxis toward its next destination, a small dog appears on the runway and begins chasing the plane, outrunning all of the airport personnel who try to capture him, utterly bent as he is on capturing his own giant, impossible goal— a really graceful feat of poetic scale— one that will stick with me for a while.
David Eye read third, bringing to audience members a grouping of “city poems, summer poems and dirty poems,” nodding to New York City in all its complexity. David read several poems about being on public transportation that captured the silent intimacy we have with strangers, a daily phenomenon perhaps unique, in this country of cars, to New York City. Having outed himself as a military man and an actor, he supplied a steady supply of ironic quips to carry him through most of his poems— an irony that appeared hard won, a coping mechanism, perhaps, for some of the more difficult material of his poetry— the specter of AIDS, the distinctly American sense of alienation voiced in his airport poem that centered on an conversation with a soldier recently back from Iraq— his reading ended on a somber, quizzical note, which felt like the right pitch for a poem tremulously approaching what is perhaps our most difficult subject to address.
Sandra Beasley finished up the evening with a knock-out reading full of bravado and bold, concise poems that moved quickly and confidently. Each of her poems brought the reader in with witty, almost pithy ideas, only to let them get comfy and entertained before she drew them down darker pathways, full of complex discoveries and some really beautiful lyric moments. I got the impression that poets become defacto guardians of the strange and oddly compelling things of this world when Sandra confessed her long night of researching the role that the Capybara has played in all manner of religions and cultural practices the world over. She also offered a poem about the murder of Osiris and the fate of his wife, Isis (a favorite line: “Every king, in the end, is his only audience. Every queen picks up the pieces”), the history of the starling (brought here by one Eugene Schieffelin, a rich eccentric Brit who introduced the species to New York after importing over 100 birds from England (he thought all birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays should be in America, too)), and a really stunning poem about the war called, “A Cast of Thousands,” which took on a bit more weight when she shared that she, too, came from a military family, though the poem was powerful enough without the biographical information— she nailed the way we see in movies, the way war is depicted in movies, the tragedy of the sheer size of that remove. Sandra knows how to tell a story, and she knows how to assert her way of seeing in a way that will make you want to see it that way, too. Check out her book, I Was the Jukebox, out last year from Norton.
Thanks to all the readers for another fantastic evening at Bryant Park. See you next week!
Mary Austin Speaker (www.maryaustinspeaker.com) is the author of the recent chapbook, Abandoning the Firmament, (Menagerie Editions 2009). She is co-curator and founder of Triptych Readings (www.triptychreadings.com) in NYC, poet laureate of F.E.A.S.T. (www.feastinbklyn.org), and works as an art director for Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Her poems can be found in recent or upcoming issues of Iowa Review, Boston Review, Gray Tape, H_NGM_N, New Orleans Review, and elsewhere. In previous iterations, she was poetry editor of Indiana Review, co-curator of Readings Between A&B, and taught creative writing at Indiana University. She loves westerns and astronaut paraphernalia.
* Sandra Beasley photograph by Andrew Lightman