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 22
Rain was once again in the offing on Tuesday, June 22, when Coffee House Press presented its selection of readers at Bryant Park, but a sizeable crowd braved the hovering clouds. Paul Romero began the evening by offering an excerpt from Mark Strand's poem, "Eating Poetry," an apt choice for the satisfyingly diverse selection of readers presented that evening. Coffee House, a Minneapolis-based press that's been operating for over 25 years, publishes an extremely wide range of poets, and Tuesday's evening reflected their broad, carefully-selected editorial efforts.
Lightsey Darst appeared before the crowd first, a spectral sort of woman, strikingly fair and serious, with a frill of red hair. Lightsey has an austere, intense kind of femininity that compounds the considerable effects of her book, Find the Girl, a collection of poems that examines the spiritual detritus of unsolved mysteries involving missing girls. The book (and the reading) drew connections between the culturally acceptable disfigurement of the female body and the visceral imaginings projected onto the bodies of missing pre-teen beauty queens like Jon Benet Ramsey ("the little pageant winner in her red dress"). The drama of Lightsey's reading drew its power as much from the cultural phenomena of CSI Miami as it did from the violent drama of the coming of age of any girl. There's a boldness to the decision to look into the darker corners of beauty, and Lightsey's reading reflected this boldness. There was a hint of challenge in her voice as she spoke, a challenge likely born from a culture pathologically attached to the innocence of young girls. It's with lines like these, "a girl is a woman is a rack to be hung with gashed sky" and "some nerve damage / some dirt rubbed in / your hair my dear" that a conceit begins to emerge— we have no adequate way of discussing the sexualization of young girls. Lightsey offers poems in this dearth. She finished the reading with an excerpt from her new work in progress, a project that begins in hell, and then moves through earth to paradise. These poems were more sound-based, fractured phrases rife with assonance and rhyme, where narrative became more of a referent than a driving force. It was great to see her read from such different works without losing her grip on her subject matter. The darkness of physical violence was still very much a part of the newer work, but the work's chaotic, disorienting aspect had moved itself into the forms of the poems themselves. Within that chaos came some very dark music— a halting, lilting sound—which felt very much Lightsey's own.
Greg Hewett. Chris is one of a handful of poet proteges of Greg's who have gone on to publish books without the benefit of an MFA (among them Ted Mathys, another Coffee House author), which speaks to Greg's considerable skills as a teacher of undergraduates (also evidenced by the gaggle of Carleton College alumni who appeared at the reading to see their beloved professor). In his introduction, Chris helpfully laid out a few of Greg's poetic obsessions— the commons, conspiracy, and dominion, — which have directed his attention over the course of his last few books—this year's darkacre, The Eros Conspiracy and Red Suburb, respectively. Greg's apparent interest in the workings of power manifested itself most immediately in his reading from darkacre, which takes the physical substance of land and imbues it with different colors (redacre, grayacre, etc.) to project certain conceptual glosses onto the notion of spacial agency. It's a remarkably flexible format—property rights become akin to characters, landmasses become stand-ins for groups vying for a prize, and the effect is, as Chris said in his intro, "gymnastic." Greg has a way of regarding historical phenomena (like the sale of the island of Manhattan in his poem, "Manahata,") in a telescoping manner so as to collapse the time between then and now in a motion both swift and certain, while maintaining the psychic residue of both past and present. Fingerprints of other times all over the land. It began to rain after a few poems, and a kindly attendant from Bryant Park appeared at Greg's elbow with a giant umbrella. "Even the sky is askew," he read, and the clouds let down their rain while we listened to "The Apartment," a poem about exile imbued with loss and longing. Whether exploring the mystery of civilization or the landscape of his own memory, Greg's poems present themselves tentacles-out, offering audience members a hundred ways into an idea.
A.B. Spellman finished up the night as the rain turned from sprinkle to a heavier pour. The umbrellas came out, and, not to be dissuaded, the audience stayed their course. A.B. began with "Groovin' Low," (a play on Dizzy Gillespie's "Groovin' Light), a sweet poem about the new music of aging— "I bop to the bassline now / I enter the tune from the bottom up." A.B.'s reading was made from and through music, from the perceptual drama of listening to the sublime strains of Bach and Coltrane, to a rhythmic traditional Scotch form that A.B. described as being "somewhere between Welsh and African," which he picked up from British poet Kathleen Raine—this form was used for a poem about the naming of his daughter, Kaji. A.B.'s next poem was written for his wife Karen, who he noted was, when he met her, director of the Students for Nonviolence Coordinating Committee and writing an encomium for Stokely Carmichael. The poem, "The Truth About Karen," was an intimate, generous poem that offered its fondness openly. There was a grace at work here, one which shared space with the first poem of his set, acknowledging the changes of life and appreciating what came before them without nostalgia or bittersweetness— instead, a quiet joy emerged that comes, one presumes from facing all of these things with a steadfast partner. There is no sense of loss weighing these poems down, only the bright acknowledgment of change, and the active presence required for facing life directly, intentionally. In "The Truth About Karen," A.B. described the process of watching his wife's attention shift from organizing people at great risk to ushering plants up from the ground, and the movement is anything but lamented— "Even in sleep you are never still," he writes of his wife, and of their shared atmosphere, "a music that makes the darkness live." It's refreshing to hear lovepoems that are bravely themselves, without sentimentality but full of tenderness. The saddest part of A.B.'s reading was that he had to end it so soon because the rain eventually reclaimed Bryant Park, and there was a sound system to attend to, speakers to be kept dry. He ended on an appropriate note: from rhythmic, wistful "After Vallejo"— "I will die in Havana in a hurricane." And the rain came down.
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.