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 15
Tuesday's reading showcased the offerings of Blue Flower Arts, a literary speakers' agency founded by Alison Granucci, which handles the appearances and affairs of several dozen of our nation's finest writers, among them Thomas Sayers Ellis, Taylor Mali and Patricia Smith, who graced Bryant Park Tuesday with their ineffable presences.
Thomas Sayers Ellis, who noted that he was a minority because he was the only poet reading that evening who had not been on Russell Simmons Def Jam Poetry. Anyone who has heard Thomas read before knows his signature brand of highly syncopated musical poetry, but for those who haven't had the chance to catch him, it is extraordinarily anaphoristic, to the degree that his readings verge on the beatbox, with shorter words (like "or," the title of an exemplary poem) becoming staccato punctuations that draw out a list, allowing Thomas to give each item in the list a differently-phrased kind of music. One of my pet peeves with readings is when readers read poems as though they're reading off their grocery list, with the same inflection on each word, utterly obscuring valuable syntax. Thomas, obviously, is in no danger of this, and perhaps offers us the polar opposite to that kind of reading. The poems are often provocative, thorny, dissenting, pissed-off, and wry, wry, wry. The musical way he reads them serves to offer up a bittersweetness—it's a smart way of delivering such patently uncomfortable rhetoric— such as his vowel poem which deftly demands reparations for slavery, from his latest book, Skin, Inc.,: "A - E - U - O - I : APOLOGIZE" But Thomas wouldn't be Thomas if he didn't get personal, too: he also read poems that include the text of rejection letters he's received, using the syntax of the submission process as a way of critiquing the economy of poetry publication. His poems, and his reading, true to form, were condemning, slippery, and full of wit. A big highlight, which I wish I'd heard more of, was an excerpt from a long elegy for Michael Jackson called "Gone Pop." Michael Jackson seems to be perfect territory for Thomas's poetic acumen, and I'm looking forward to reading the rest of that piece in Skin, Inc., available from Graywolf this September.
Taylor Mali was up next, and began his electrifying set with a quieter poem that snuck up, building drama, as Taylor's poems are wont to do—"How Falling in Love is Like Having a Dog" is the kind of poem that seems like a simple conceit at first, grows into an expansive lyric space, and then ends with an emotional climax, one that feels as triumphant for the audience as it does for the reader. Taylor has a background in acting and his reading style shows it— he's confident, brash, dynamic and highly entertaining. According to Ofer Ziv’s intro, the New York Times called Taylor a "ranting comic showman and literary provocateur." He certainly gets the crowd going, and even adds a few to it— when Taylor was reading his paean for teachers which he calls "The Miracle Workers," several passers-by stopped and gawked, and I eve caught a few of them doubled-over, clutching their guts with glee. Taylor really nailed the awkward pride of students in this one, as well as the necessity for teachers to be able to invent their own logic in order to maintain the delicate balance of respect and entertainment that teachers must need command if they are to do their jobs well. At one point he marched into the audience and took hold of a slender strawberry-blonde (who turned out to be Mrs. Marie-Elizabeth Mali), as though she were the sole recipient of Taylor's passionate educational evangelism. It had its effect. The audience (including the passersby) were clearly wondering what he would do next. He ended with a poem called "On Girls Lending Pens," a ballad-style poem that echoed an earlier one of his pieces ("Boddhisatva," a tale about a three-legged dog), which was funny and touching, bringing to mind the Australian poet Banjo Patterson or even Shel Silverstein. There is a long tradition for this kind of work, and Taylor does it justice while contemporizing it and making it pertinent to New York.
Patricia Smith, arguably one of the most successful poets to emerge from the slam scene— her 2008 collection, Blood Dazzler, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and she's also won the National Poetry Series. Patricia began by noting the 50th Anniversary of Motown, and then proceeded to read from a long piece that alternated between the voice of her mother, Annie, and her father, Otis (an amateur blues singer). This was really a treat. Patricia is a great performer, her ear for dialogue is pitch-perfect and her sense of drama and reveal are outstanding. This was a reading I wanted to last for quite a bit longer. Hula hoopers glowed in the orange setting sun as Patricia transfixed her audience with the sad, gritty tale of Annie and Otis, a love you somehow know is doomed from the beginning. The orange, incredible light striking the passersby and busses of 42nd Street colored the whole scene in a cinematic glow. It was the golden hour, undoubtedly, a strange bedfellow to the dank scenes Patricia described of cramped apartment living, but maybe a little closer to the kind of light you might find streaming in the window of one of her father's bars. The piece went on extensively, tenderly evoking the way two people bring about in themselves the kind of faith that's necessary to carry on and keep a life going. From what I could glean from Patricia after the reading, this long piece is part of a "memoir in verse" that she's currently working on— look out for a forthcoming book— I'm sure this will land with a publisher soon enough, and whoever's smart enough to snap it up will be glad they did. A shorter poem in a similar vein was titled, "I Should Have Been Jimmy Savannah," a nod toward the flashy name her father tried to give her, only to be steamrolled by Patricia's sensible, proper mother. In this poem, Patricia relates the wild name with the wilder women haunting the bars of Chicago, and projected that sense of sexuality and danger onto the young self she could have been if her father had won the battle of names—if she had been named Jimmy Savannah, she supposed, she may have wound up " a slick whisperer with a switchblade in my shoe." This was one amid a myriad list of evocative, well-cut shapes Patricia doled out for herself, a stack of seductive might-have-beens, as one does, when one wonders, "what if?" Patricia ended her reading with a remarkable poem inspired by her mother telling her she was taking English lessons. In this piece, Patricia carefully laid out the highly emotional complexities of the Great Migration of the 1950s, the shame and pride associated with assimilation, the sadness with which one's place of origin is erased, the heartbreaking pride with which a daughter regards a self her mother has cast off. Patricia's book, Blood Dazzler, is being adapted for the dance stage by choreographer Paloma McGregor, (and directed by Paloma's sister, Ms Patricia McGregor). Look out for that arriving on the Harlem Stage with members of the Urban Bush Women dance company.
The reading last night was, in a word, electric. These poets know how to hold your attention, and they're good enough not to settle for mere seduction—last night we saw something genuine emerge, something that matters. Go buy their books and see for yourself.
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.