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, July 6
By a stroke of great fortune, Bryant Park's Word for Word Poetry series conflicted with another event in Bryant Park on Tuesday July 6, so on the day when the New York Times reported that temperatures reached a record 103 degrees, poetry fans relaxed among the cool tomes of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. The standard rain location for the Word for Word series is an historic landmark designed in 1890 by Lamb and Rich. Having once housed the Berkeley School for Boys, the Neoclassical library maintains its (literally) old-school feel with ionic marble columns and a large gilt symbol of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen— an arm wielding a sledgehammer, surrounded by oak and laurel leaves. A sizeable crowd assembled themselves in the library to hear from Mark Bibbins, Wayne Koestenbaum, Jason Schneiderman and Jean Valentine.
Mark Bibbins, author of The Dance of No Hard Feelings and Sky Lounge read first, beginning with a long poem in 34 sections made of 34 syllables each, sonnet-like in their temporal resonance. The sections were impressionistic vignettes about intimacy that yielded the odd sense of timelessness of a gone love, the relentless questioning, the way that questions scatter out into entire landscapes, each of them as endless as the other. Mark's poetry often makes use of a dramatic shift in point-of-view, offering both minute details and the overwhelming whole, in effect resisting the notion of an understandable kind of scale— we are either apart from experience because of the context in which we see it, or we are so effected by its details that direct interaction is difficult at best. A poem called "Redemption" used a kind of mad-lib language play, replacing adjectives and verbs with "adjective" and "activity"— "Yes, but can you activity / when you're not adjective?" [linebreak inferred]. This tongue-in-cheek obfuscation nodded to a closeting of experience and discussion, revealing the myriad ways one can be forced into secrecy. Subsequent poems were charged with pathos and ornamented with humor, allowing for a funny-sad tone to emerge—Mark's poems are often shape-changers, at once narrative and lyric, funny and sad, direct and veering— as in the poem, "The Anxiety of Coincidence"— "vermin, scalpel, fruit / at unscheduled meetings / I refused to argue / I only need you as much / as an umlaut changes the sound of the waves" [linebreaks inferred]. He ended with an airplane poem that offered the experience of flying as an absurd one, which felt like an appropriate mode for flight.
Paul Romero introduced Wayne Koestenbaum as a critic, poet and accomplished pianist. Wayne is the esteemed critic and author of six collections of prose and five of poetry, and he began his reading by wistfully recalling having seen Jean Valentine read in 1978. Wayne's reading was carefully phrased, carving out a rich lyric space that hovered between the wink of the campy commentator and the seductive poise of the performer. The poems distilled experience and phenomena into a kind of music whispered with the deliberateness of a secret confessed. Many of the poems treated torch singers and film stars of the 1960s as intimates, as in "I Promised Connie Francis," and "At the Grave of Yvonne de Carlo," though the poems weren't simply worshipful— Connie Francis and Yvonne de Carlo figure as comrades-in-arms of a sort, women who created a kind of moral code through their performances, in which the speaker finds himself immersed. The relationships figured in these poems often seemed casual or clandestine—"I frenched a father's finger," he read, a confession to Yvonne de Carlo, who passed in 2007. "Accretion" took on the tone of a crime retold— "recall the lumpy father, recall the lumpy mother," which moves steadily from a slightly distorted domestic scene into something entirely surreal, which worked its glancing way through certain experiential truths of family life, delivered with an uncanny sense of surprise and a practiced ear for music— this was in evidence perhaps most overtly in the last poem Wayne read, "Apres une Lecture de Dante," a poem titled after a sonata by Franz Lizt that Wayne described as particularly difficult to play— the description of an old teacher was exquisite— "her Clara-Bow hair / orioled by flame-tipped icicles." [linebreak inferred]
Jason Schneiderman, author of Sublimation Point, read next, beginning with an elegy for his grandmother called "How She Died." Many of Jason's poems centered around the fallibility of the body, and the inability of even memory to preserve what physically slips away from us. "Echo and Narcissus" described the process of Narcissus aging and the dogged affection of Echo who loved him despite being rejected. The heart of the reading was a series of elegies to his mother from Jason's new manuscript. The poems were intimate and conflicted, realistic in their portrayal of a complex relationship—"O Mother, distributor of guilt and comfort. / O Mother, repository of guilt and comfort." The poems were certainly as much about the speaker as they were about his mother, and as generous and critical with each as with the other. "The Kubler-Ross Joke" nodded to the five stages of grief and the ridiculousness of understanding grief. "Last Moment" offered perhaps one of the stages of grief— anger — after an experience of hospital mistreatment, followed by the dour, self-aware acknowledgment that "everyone knows you can't write your way out of grief." A favorite poem, "Probability" took the notion of statistics and pointed out its inherent surprise— "every single dinosaur on earth was statistically safe when the meteor hit." This idea of safety is something that resonated strongly following the group of elegies— statistically, we are almost entirely all going to experience a parent's death— but when it happens, we will probably be as surprised as the dinosaurs. The last poem of Jason's set was a sweet love poem for his partner Michael Broder, an avid gardener— "some days I flatter myself / to think that I'm one of your flowers. / Sometimes I flatter myself that I'm not." [linebreaks inferred]
Jean Valentine, the last reader of the evening, listing off her myriad accomplishments (she's currently the New York State Poet and has won just about every prize out there for poetry). Jean began with a poem by Marie Ponsot, who is currently recovering from a stroke— "Thank Gerard" (about Hopkins) asked the question, "Is not this the rain we have longed for, you and I? / God to you / hold him close-folded, / above his sillion / Loft him halo him / Prize him high, pen in hand". As always, Jean was deft in her selection and generous with the attention given her. The rest of the poems Jean read came from her newest manuscript. They are as quiet, deliberate and careful as any of her other work, teasing out the sacred from the everyday in a way that is absolutely convincing. Few poets are as successful in communicating their reverence as Jean is— it was wonderful to hear her carry that reverence into a kind of prayer narrative—a telling of what happened along the way toward something very important. The journey is the subject, the silent, unsaid moments that offer us unspeakably obvious reasons to keep going, to love, to remember. In this way Jean's work has a very stark power— she does not simply point out things— she makes a thing sacred by how she tells it. Her new work shows her affinity for unchampioned artists— from her recent chapbook, Lucy, Jean read a poem for Martín Ramírez, an "untaught painter" who spent the better part of his life at an asylum in California, and whose work hangs in the American Folk Art Museum. In "The Older Man Among Us," Jean moved into a dreamlike tone, seductive in the way of movies, sharing something in tone with filmmaker Chris Marker— in each of these artists there is a mystery at work, but a mystery that is clearly in service of a very earnest kind of exploration. Her last poem, written after Louise Bourgeois's suite of engravings, "He Disappeared Into Complete Silence," contained a distilled list I will not soon forget— "I have pulled the elements in around me / like a blanket. Element blanket. / Books. Earth. Friends. Fire." [linebreaks and punctuation inferred]. When we were discussing Jean's reading afterward, Paul Romero shared with me a quote of Jean's that he regretted he hadn't gotten to read during her intro— "That's my goal: to take out everything that doesn't feel alive. And also to get to a place that has some depth to it. Certainly I'm always working with things that I don't understand--with the unconscious, the invisible. And trying to find a way to translate it." I feel very fortunate to have been able to witness her translations.
Thank you to all the readers during June and July that I have had the pleasure to hear. It's been an honor to listen.
Mary Austin Speaker
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.