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. Join us tomorrow from 12:30pm to 2:00pm for the final Word for Word Poetry event of the season at the Bryant Park Reading Room.
Mary Austin Speaker on Word for Word Poetry, September 7
This Tuesday on a sunny, windswept afternoon, three poets from the venerable Cave Canem writers workshop shared their work with the audience at Bryant Park. Paul Romero started off the reading by acknowledging, with pride, the three years that Bryant Park has hosted Cave Canem poets. Jocelyn Burrell, Lorelei Williams and Monica A. Hand were introduced by Camille Rankine, programs coordinator for Cave Canem, who mentioned their upcoming participating in the Brooklyn Book Festival.
Jocelyn Burrell, who I'd had the pleasure of meeting at dinner following the Blue Flower Arts reading on June 15, gave the first reading of the afternoon. After editing "Word: on being a [woman] writer," a collection of essays by women authors from Sandra Cisneros to Barbara Kingsolver, Jocelyn is at work on her first manuscript of poems and read from a series called Duels, which she aptly described as "haunted by anxiety," a description that would inadvertently cover a great many of the poems we heard from all three readers, particularly the anxiety about identity, diaspora, the exotic, and the fraught relationship between mother and child. The first of these was "What is Born," which examined the anxiety of diaspora, rhyming "what stands for the family" with "break into his gallery." The poem had a draggy, labored rhythm that spoke to the difficulty of contending with an identity that is as much mystery as it is tragedy, that is as championed as it is cast out— a favorite line: "Jefferson was a liar / Just like your father." The poem exuded a rough vulnerability that found its way into the following poems, such as "She Will Not," a poem that pried open the mythic gloss of a wedding day to discover the rift between the idea and practice of marriage. "Accounting for the Damage," written when its author was digesting the news of the earthquake in Haiti this year, had the terrifying effect of bringing the reader to the disturbing present of the disaster ("palms wander, bayonet the sky"), through its history as a supplier of raw goods to colonial powers, ("the murmur of sugar"), and then to the forgetful, notably abstract present ("the world already winding its watch and moving on without you"). A truly shattering poem that I will not soon forget. She ended her set with a nod to the changing of the seasons as we sloughed off the heat of August and looked toward the first days of fall. Persephone, to Demeter: "Summer, / I cherish your grief, long you / dead." (link: http://leximaven.wordpress.com/)
Next up was Lorelei Williams, an activist working on a novel set in Brazil, who began her reading with a dramatic poem about a runaway slave entitled, "Maroon Woman." The poem was written entirely in the present active tense ("he lay her down in the secret place. . . after, she lie like a stone stunned sinner", which yielded not only a kind of defacto dialect, but a nervous, staccato rhythm made up almost entirely of single-syllable words. One extreme example from the poem's pinnacle: "Rain. Dog. Run. Gun." and the denoument: "New home up north / not safe, but home / not his, her own / and free." The poem had a kind of frenetic energy that Lorelei used to great dramatic effect in her reading. The shortness of the phrases felt radically intimate, as though we were being given access, moment by desperate, impassioned, reactive moment, to the experience of deciding to run. Many of the poems that followed touched on Lorelei's Yoruba religious practice. "Invit Oshun" was an entreaty to Oshun, the goddess of water. "Diaspora Daughter" chimed in with Jocelyn's resistance to a neatly packaged identity, offering an appropriately complex response to the question, "Where you from?" The poem was lilting, lyric, beautiful, playful in its rhymes but always with an eye toward offering the reader something unexpected: "I'm politics, prayer and prophecy / the invisible woman in the holy trinity." The last line is my favorite, and I may be reading into this too much, but it seemed to merge a Ralph Ellison shout-out / critique with the practice of merging Yoruba with Christianity (imported to the US as Santeria). During Lorelei's last poem about her favorite place in Brazil in which the speaker merged with the giddy glory of her surroundings, a sparrow flitted up into a spot of sunlight on the unused reader's chair beside her, taking it in, savoring the last few moments of summer.
Monica A. Hand, a book artist and poet studying the translation of Haitian Creole poetry at Drew University, finished up the afternoon with a reading from her new manuscript, Me and Nina (or Dear Nina), a series of poems in conversation with Nina Simone (and, it often turned out, Gil Scott-Heron, too). The first of these, a bare, questioning poem, takes the word, "Daughters" (the poem's title) and pulls from its letters words fraught with the difficulty of mothering, ending each line with one: "Some daughters always hurt. . . / Who will stand guard? / Who is the thug?" (italics & linebreaks interpreted). The next poem, "Daddy Bop," showed off Monica's kinship with readers like Hermine Pinson and Thomas Sayers Ellis whose readings often sound more like "singings." A poem like "Daddy Bop" allows for a complex kind of joy to emerge— one born of knowledge and acceptance — "so if you see me on the street / actin' like a bitch / I'm just missing my daddy" was a favorite line, greeted by an audience shouting and laughing their acknowledgement of our collective preoccupation with "daddy." Monica hit the nail on the head with that one, and went on to read a poem addressed directly to Nina Simone herself: "My daughter called to say / she will sleep in her car / I make my heart rock / It will not break." If parents fortify themselves because they have to, children also have their ways of putting up when they can't change something — in a later poem written in the voice of Monica's 14-year-old self, the speaker declares, "Black people sure can keep secrets. . . I keep the dark / we are quiet / my friend and I / we don't tell." After this resolute and terrifying acceptance of silence as a cure-all, it's a relief to hear the final poem, "How it Feels to Be Free," where social progress is likened to a child's game of hopscotch: "two steps forward / three steps back / Me at social services / on line / hold on / hold on" You can follow the rules, but what will get you through is your own strength to simply keep going.
It's always a pleasure to hear what the poets of Cave Canem have to say. I'm thankful to have been asked to say a thing or two about it. Be sure to check out their reading at the Brooklyn Book Fest and look out for news about a benefit reading in October!
Mary Austin Speaker is the author of the recent chapbook, Abandoning the Firmament, (Menagerie Editions 2009). She is co-curator and founder of Triptych Readings in NYC, poet laureate of F.E.A.S.T., 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.