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 27
This week’s Word for Word Poetry Reading was in the Letras Latinas series, welcoming Latino authors to Bryant Park. Paul Romero welcomed the audience in Spanish and English, explaining that the readers had been selected with the help of Francisco Aragón, director of the University of Notre Dame Institute for Latino Studies. With the subject matter of the evening stretching over both of the American Continents, with specific visits to Texas, California, Argentina, and Indiana (thanks to UND), it was interesting to think about how Spanish and English exist in overlapping geographies, with Latino culture marked by Spanish, but here made visibile (audible?) in English. Of course, New York—a central node in world culture—is the perfect place for letting identity emerge without fetters or restrictions; Bryant Park’s podium was giving a stage to Latino poets bound by a common identity capacious enough to hold broad sections of humanity.
Ruth Irupé Sanabria was born in Argentina to dissident parents who were placed in Death Camps by the Pinochet government during Argentina’s “dirty war”. To her knowledge, her family is the only family to be completely re-united following the abductions. Many of the poems were about her family’s status as a cause celebre, with the Seattle Press covering her family’s reunion. A major concern of her poems was how to live with the knowledge of brutality, how to stay alive in its wake, on poems asking “or is it madness to rise again at the rim of violence.” A poem about a piñata highlighted the ways that violence is never far, even when sanitized or turned into play. My favorite line: “We didn’t know we were fragile on our way from one war to the next.” Sanabria expressed curiosity about the statue of William Earl Dodge, who stands guard over the Bryant Park Reading room. We learned that he was an advocate for Native American rights, although his successes were limited.
Steven Cordova, like Sanabria, writes in the shadow of tragedy. Cordova has lived with HIV for over a decade. He said that his book Long Distance is a collection of AIDS poems, written over many years. His poems were mostly focused on how language flusters and fails its speakers. Four of the poems he read were called “Across the Table” and detailed conversations between two speakers who had to constantly revise their speech. In the first “Across the Table,” the speakers were on a blind date, both HIV positive men, relieved to be with someone of the same status. And yet they have to wish that each other were negative. The speech in the poems always folded back on itself, “I’m glad you’re positive” has to be amended by the next speaker: “I’m glad you’re positive, / too, though, of course, I wish / you weren’t.” His poems constantly interrogated the way we use and misuse language, from impossible clichés like “it’s all good” to curious inversions, like how “I’m dying to” do something, really meaning “I’m living to” do that thing.
Rachel McKibbens has an impressive pedigree as a spoken word artist. She brought together Cordova’s attention to language with Sanabria’s socially engaged storytelling. She started the reading with a shout out to her fellow Bi-polars, and read the appropriately titled “Letter from my Heart to my Brain,” a set of reassurances to herself and her listeners that included “It’s OK to only feel like a photograph of yourself” and “It’s OK to love best the taste of your own blood.” McKibbens wonderfully titled poem“Weather is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful” was a lengthy meditation on abandonment. All of her poems seemed to struggle against boredom and the quotidian, trying to find ways out of the fact that most of our wounds are not exceptional or exciting, but dull and ongoing. Contemplating her child’s possible traumatization by her reaction to his pulling up flowers in Central Park, McKibbens struggled for an ethic of ongoing kindness that might overcome ongoing opportunities for cruelty.
Under the rubric of Latino, the evening seemed to highlight the permeable membrane between the public and the private, the ways that politics are always pushing into our lives, and that our lives are the stuff that politics are made of. The global and the individual are never far apart, and perhaps the universal resides at their intersection.
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.