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 29
On Tuesday the 29th of June, after a spate of blistering days, the heat broke just as the audience took their seats for Bryant Park's Word for Word poetry program. Paul Romero introduced the readers and announced a change in the evening's lineup—Suzanne Gardinier would be replacing Laure-Anne Bosselaar, who had been scheduled to read, but who had recently relocated to California and so could not make the trip back. Laure-Anne was missed, and honored by her friends. Each of the three readers, along with Laure-Anne, have been part of the Sarah Lawrence College MFA program as either students or teachers, and the evening's reading was a testament to the program's diversity of voices.
Kamilah Aisha Moon, known as Aisha to her friends, kicked off the reading with Laure-Anne's poem, "Friends," to much applause. Aisha's reading took a firmly narrative stance, offering poems that often seemed to share space with a rich, intimate memoir. Many of her poems centered around the specter of her sister's autism, the first poem, "11/1/77" describing the indelicacy of her sister's birthing physician, an excruciating poem that plumbed the violence of childbirth and the long shadows cast by a careless delivery. She followed with "Borderless Country," a lyric poem with a statistical refrain: "1 in 150" (according to the Washington Post, the number of children who suffer from autism). But the bulk of Aisha's reading was taken up with a long poem in the voices of various family members. Forging an intersticial space between the character-driven theatricality of a play and the lyric interiority of a poem, Aisha offered a series of meditations on difficulty, leaving her audience with a palpable sense of the shape of the family dynamic and how it had formed itself around its most difficult endeavor— the raising of her autistic sister. The poem was unflinchingly honest, and reminded me of Amy Lemmon's recent book, Saint Nobody, which takes on the complexity of raising a child with Down's Syndrome. One of Aisha's last lines on the subject veered toward an earnest confession, a kind of lament— "each visit home frays me / the price I pay for being able to drive away." This type of poem can, I think, open up dialogues about disease and treatment, and I was grateful to hear such a complex rendering of such a (for most) unimaginable task.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths as a "triple threat"— she is a poet, a photographer and a painter. The author of two chapbooks and two collections of poetry, Rachel swept up to the mic wearing a pair of seven-inch-long feather earrings, which I mention only because it seemed to speak to her style of reading and writing— dramatic, beautiful, and stirring in its texture. Many of her poems were a shade of love poem, and I really liked the variety she brought to this much-plumbed subject. "Ode to Youth" was bittersweet, offering an appreciation for the drama of a brief affair and the body and heart's ability to maintain themselves despite their own (and their fleeting partners') recklessness. "Elegy Before a Bowed Moon" took on an impassioned, almost gothic stance, offering a thorough rendering of a butcher's task as a metaphor for the creative act. "In Memoriam— Friendship" was a lament for a friendship that ended unexpectedly— the confusion of loss, the gravity of friendship and how psychologically intimate those relationships can be. Rachel's poems were often imagistic glosses on an implied violence, an insistence on an exacting eye toward beauty despite beauty's terrifying power. She ended with a poem called "Hagar's Lament," and explained that the Hagar of the poem was inspired by a character of the same name in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, and it took the shape of a deeply embodied elegy. Rachel's reading was gripping, theatrical, of a piece with the theme of beauty that ran throughout many of her poems— beauty as a yoke, a terrible and precious commodity that offers a continual conflict about how it is to be presented.
Suzanne Gardinier, whose several books include The New World and Dialogue with the Archipelago, read last, beginning with a poem, "USAHAN," in memory of Ben Sonnenberg, the late publisher of Grand Street, who had published the poem. A favorite line from the poem—"Tell me what I have not been able to imagine" was a great intro to Suzanne's poetry, which often surprises with simple language that derives much of its emotional weight from a kind of stark humility, a Whitman-ish sort of dedication to the world and to the poet's responsibility to describe, to worship, to love. She read a few ghazals, the first of which used the refrain, "two women dancing," and depicted a chorus of circumstances in which two women dance— tenderly, clandestinely, relentlessly—indeed, these three words could describe all of the poems Suzanne read that night. Flowers appeared throughout Suzanne's poems, and food, bodily movement, body parts seen as individual phenomena. A standout was a poem written for "one of [her] beloved yoga teachers," and drew its power as much from the rhythmic listing of poses and their connection of body to earth as it did from the depiction of the teacher outside of the classroom, the secret life of the quasi-public figure, written from a position of great thankfulness and care. Her language throughout offered a richly textured kind of celebration—controlled, ceremonial, and extraordinarily intimate.
It was a pleasure to hear these three women read such intimate and piercing poems just as the heat of the day broke. It was good to be in a body, and to reach into the air with a sense of what has happened, how our bodies blister and break and relent.
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.