We've tapped some very special guest bloggers to help us celebrate this summer's Word for Word Poetry series at Bryant Park. They provide a behind-the-scenes look at each event and divulge about the talented poets who share their work in the park. Experience Word for Word Poetry yourself every Tuesday through September 14, from 7pm to 8:30pm, at the Bryant Park Reading Room.
Anne Lovering Rounds on Word for Word Poetry, August 17
As the Word for Word reading was about to begin last Tuesday, a particularly balmy evening and a wonderful night to hear poetry in the park, I happened to overhear a conversation. A young man behind me was describing to his friend the way green spaces were especially conducive to reading. “I can’t read near concrete,” he said.
It was a commentary about silent, solitary reading. But with its ceiling of leaves, the Reading Room has an equal ability to draw listeners completely out of the built, Midtown surrounding. It really is a room, and this intimate quality of the space especially complemented Tuesday’s readers, a cluster of Canadian poets. As the six (six!) readers passed the mic, the night developed a close, connected, chamber-music feel.
Ken Babstock, the first of those six, opened with “Hunter Dearie and Hospital Wing”— what he called a “toxic ballad.” Babstock’s way with meter is masterful, and it was a pleasure to pick out the dactyls from these lines of toxic content: “children of blood lung”; “Hospital Wing sings to his children.” In “Autumn News from the Donkey Sanctuary,” we also heard a blend of registers. The poem begins from a mild satire of community newsletter-style writing (a donkey named Pliny the Elder?) but soon slips into the more sinister territory of the “perimeter fence, / the ID chips like functional cysts slipped / under the skin,” and ends with straightforward, serious, and resonant instructions: “Have a safe winter / outside the enclosure.” Babstock closed with a poem called “Brno.” How do you even say that? Babstock asked with a laugh, identifying Brno as a town in the Czech Republic. But the poem found its groove in complexities of consonants, elucidating rhymes like “experimental theater” and “V-neck sweater,” chewing on a sci-fi alphabet (“new SIM card and Vodafone PIN”). The more alien or unpronounceable the language, the more Babstock thrives on making surprising, elegant verse out of it.
Sue Sinclair isn’t afraid to be a philosopher’s poet. A student of aesthetics at the University of Toronto, Sinclair shared work that will appear in the anthology The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2010 (Tightrope Books). Her poems were daring, addressing history, memory, freedom, and even “the skin of the visible,” yet also plainspoken. Her diction and her style are clear and clean, even as her poetry takes on the knotted and the abstract. In her final poem, “Fear of Wasps,” Sinclair spun out the story of a boy who laughs and laughs while his friend is stung. Sinclair’s métier was just below the surface as the poem’s insects became “flying zeroes” and “buzzing nihilists.” Even as the poem built the episode, it concluded with the stripped-down language of parable: “For he loved his friend but despised him in equal measure.”
Matthew Tierney introduced himself by way of two poems about phobias, “Apeirophobia” (fear of infinity) and “Paraleasiphopia” (fear of parades—a phobia Tierney invented). These fear poems offered a counterpoint of directness (“Run from it. Go ahead. Try”) and tongue-twisting, as in a parade’s “majorettes / in red-spangled spandex” and “Methuselah in a fez.” Tierney is attracted to combination and contrast, as he suggested in prefatory remarks to “The Rocket Scientist,” which stemmed from his impulse to explore the relationship of science with poetry. (In “The Rocket Scientist,” “Charles found a bucket of anti-matter” and “put a lid on it right away.”) In the same combinative spirit, Tierney’s last poem, “Admittance,” was a beautiful articulation of opposites—its phrase “release, admittance” not only bespoke the dynamic of a hospital, but also gestured to all lived experience as a constant, ritual transversal of threshold. The poem continued to showcase Tierney’s fluency in the sciences: “52 cell renewals”; an “encased femur, knitting”; “nuclei making a go of it.” Tierney’s intellectual curiosity manifested itself as a quiet power, and like those of the readers preceding him, his poems were to be sipped, not guzzled.
A. F. Moritz is the author of more than 15 books. He’s the professor you always wanted, at once humble, accessible, and at home with poetry’s great presences. Moritz’s ear for iambic and his control of the long line are masterful; his poems tug you into their current. At the end of “Better Days,” a poem Moritz read from his recent collection The Sentinel, these qualities only elongate the speaker’s regret, bitterness, and nostalgia: “That old man comes back, / the friend I saw each day and never spoke to, / because I hoped soon to disappear from there, / as I have disappeared, into the heaven of better days.” As Moritz delivered “Artisan and Clerk,” on the nexus between labor, power, and writing, I wondered — in the wake of a line like “I was paid well for my work to be erased”— if anyone had made such a riveting poem of process: of the “fighting over the drafts,” the messy, ethically- and politically-charged labor of poets and editors. Moritz’s work is infused with voices: in “the power of the renovated hammering” of “Artisan and Clerk” lurked the “hammered gold and gold enameling” of Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”; or in the ending lines of “The Last Thing,” “And so we go on, always lightening, darkening,” an echo of the final words of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best-known narrator, Nick Carraway (“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”). Intentional or happenstance allusions included, Moritz’s poetry creates a riveting force of its own, and its reader could not be kinder or more inviting.
Molly Peacock, the last reader and the editor of Tightrope Books’ Best Canadian Poetry series. She closed out the reading with two parts of a book-length poem in progress, subtitled “The Lives of the Letters.” (The book has no title yet.) Peacock read the lives of two letters, N and R. In her playful abecedarium, we met the “Negativo String Quartet,” with its “trademark negativo effect” that “seems like nothing”; we met “R and her egret,” “full of regret and rien.” Letters’ shapes, the strokes they contain, their sounds and the connotations of those sounds—Peacock revealed a fascination with it all. Bringing us back to the basics, she clinched what each poet on the bill had also shown: that beautiful complication is folded into the ABCs.
Anne Lovering Rounds is Adjunct Professor of Humanities at Metropolitan College of New York and an editorial assistant at Cambridge University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University.