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.
Jason Schneiderman on Word for Word Poetry, July 20
After two weeks of Word for Word Poetry being held inside, it was refreshing to be welcomed back to the Bryant Park Reading Room by Paul Romero. The gravel-floored, tree-roofed space is one of the more comfortable and beautiful outdoor spaces in New York. And the oasis is all the more comforting for being in view of the bustle that one needs to escape. If your mind wanders, your eyes can settle on the tight cliques of chess players, the picnics on the lawn, or the majestic marble of the New York Public Library’s rear façade. Back outside the reading was accompanied by endless people walking by, many of them slowing down to listen, and a smaller number of them actually pulling up chairs and joining the audience. Poetry often feels sequestered, but in Bryant Park it returns to its place in the ebb and flow of humanity. It’s a relief to see poetry in the world. Fittingly, most of the evening’s poems took place outside of New York, opening out onto the world the same way that the Bryant Park Reading Room opens out onto the city.
Kate Northrop read winter poems, bringing the spirit of snow and ice to counter the mugginess of New York’s humid summer. Living in Wyoming, she knows something of winter. Northrop is a meditative poet, her keen eye employing multiple strategies to understand the strangeness of the world around her. My favorite poem was about her distrust of figure skaters, rejecting their ill marriage of dance-like lyricism and awkard vaulting athleticism. The poem was in multiple sections, and each section playfully launched itself form the previous one. The poem pointed out that you can only really trust a skater as they skate to the center of the rink, only in that moment do you see the skater as a person and not a persona. Northrop concluded with a poem by Ramón López Velarde, widely considered an innovative force in Mexican poetry. In the poem, “My Cousin Agueda” (“Mi prima Agueda”), Northrop’s own voice resonated against Velarde’s questing after how he came by his “morbid habit of soliloquy.”
Scott Hightower began by saying that he’d initially planned to read about travel, then decided on reading about Texas, before deciding to read about New York. In the end, he came back to his original decision to read travel poems, and his poems ranged over the globe. He began with an Italian sojourn, looking at painting, tasting wine, and enjoying the isolation of exploring foreign ground. One poem found him roaming the Zeppelin Field in Nuremburg, a tourist at play in a history too large to truly fathom. A poem about his father worked itself around the anaphora “My father was” and brought the questions of distance and intimacy raised by travel to this most intimate relationship. The various metaphors (“My father was a Siberian tiger. / My father was a lamb. / My father was a horse’s ass.”) served to make the father as inscrutable as a foreign language, but also the thing that shaped the speaker. In the final lines, the calling to poetry originates in the father: (“Because // of my father, I have no use for similes. / Because of my father, I hunger for / my own catalog of metaphors.”). The last poem moved back out into the world (to Spain, specifically), contemplating the various axes on which all local worlds spin.
H. L. Hix opened his reading with the poem “A Barbed-wire Fence Meditates upon a Goldfinch” by Canadian poet Don McKay. With Canada, Mexico, and North America now represented, the reading had covered all of North America. As Hix’s forthcoming Collected Poems will be called First Fire, Then Birds, the McKay poem’s image system fit perfectly into Hix’s. Also, the spare observational style of the poem ending with the lyric pronouncement: “No one is above the law” set the scene for Hix’s own work.. Hix read a small number of long poems, poems which blended close observation of visual detail with careful evocation of human emotion. The first poem was about two lovers, their love tumbling out through the associations with the room, the landscape and the imagination. In a long poem about a violent confrontation in a Mexican library, the descriptions beginning the poem ultimately gave such a vivid and clear image that by the time the violence erupted, the audience was devastated by the failure of the characters to connect and offer each other comfort in the moments when it was needed most. In Hix’s own words, “were love less dangerous / by just so much / would danger be less beautiful.”
Glenn Hughes is a Professor of Philosophy from San Antonio, and his reading began in the space of celebration before moving to elegy. Hughes poems were often concerned not just with love, but with the end of love. The physical labor that goes into the technology that we rely on (cars, boats) was another frequent concern. My favorite line was in his poem for a woodworker who responded to his frustration over a technological failing: “There’s a tool for that.” But despite the woodworker’s “impudent grace” he died in a boating accident four years later. Hughes’s second chapbook of poems Erato is a sequence of linked elegies for his first love, a woman who took her own life at the age of 47—thirty years after they first met. Erato is the muse of lyric, erotic, and elegiac poetry. The elegies often structured themselves through questions and answers, filling out the space of the unknown around her death—the unfathomable decision to remove herself from the world that nonetheless had to be confronted.
The reading was ultimately one of the more serious readings, the concerns of violent loss and the failures of intimacy threading the poems together. But in seeing human connection fail, there seemed to be a spur to overcome those distances, and to rededicate ourselves the kinds of openness and communication that poetry demands and offers.
Author's note: All quotes were written down during the reading and the line breaks guessed at. The quotations should be understood as my own dictation from drafts, not as finished work by the authors. The exception is Scott Hightower’s poem “My Father” which is available here.)
Jason Schneiderman is the author of Sublimation Point (Four Way Books) and Striking Surface (Ashland Poetry Press). His poetry and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry, Grand Street, Bloom, Court Green, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, The Story Quarterly, the Virginia Quarterly Review and Tin House among other publications. Jason has received fellowships from Yaddo, The Fine Arts Work Center, and The Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. He was the recipient of the Emily Dickinson Award from The Poetry Society in 2004. A graduate of the MFA program at NYU, he is currently completing his doctorate at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.