Mary Austin Speaker and Justin Petropoulos covered the first two evenings of Word for Word Poetry in the park, featuring Chris Martin, Joseph Lease and Elaine Equi of Coffee House Press on June 7, and the poets of CantoMundo on June 14: Diana Marie Delgado, Deborah Paredez and Carmen Tafolla.
Mary Austin Speaker on Word for Word Poetry, June 7
If I were superstitious, I might blame the weather's recent phenomena on the energy produced at Bryant Park's Coffee House Press reading on Tuesday evening featuring Chris Martin, Joseph Lease and Elaine Equi. It started with a pool of gold light that lingered on the library's back wall, hovering there above a group of unwitting hula-hoopers. Paul Romero wordlessly handed me a sheaf of pages he'd printed out from the park's blog, showing Marianne Moore and Muriel Rukeyser reading to impressive crowds in 1968 and 1969, respectively, as part of the Academy of American Poets Poets in the Parks program. The park was stuffed with people, both then and now, but now, their attention was everywhere at once— from the hula-hoopers, to the cell-phone gamers, to the avid chess players rapt in their games.
After he'd primed us with his rap, Chris praised Coffee House Press, offering that he had cut his teeth on their backlist, and that Elaine Equi, after reading Becoming Weather in manuscript form, had brought him a copy of The Conversations, Michael Ondaatje's transcriptions of conversations with the late, great film editor Walter Murch. Chris folded in her suggestion to approach the editing of his manuscript as one would a film, and offered a tribute to Elaine in the epigraph to This False Peace, the third section of Becoming Weather, "I was just looking for a moment of peace, and it made me feel murderous " (from her poem, "Gone But Not Forgiven." He formed his reading around Elaine's gift of The Conversations by reading all of the poems from Becoming Weather that have to do with movies (and there are many, as film is one of Chris's favorite preoccupations). But perhaps he also chose to filter his reading that way because being in Bryant Park often feels like being in a movie set in New York. Especially during the Word for Word series— always summer, always the golden hour. The humidity was beginning to rise. Trucks rumbled by, cars honked. "I want / to bed / in the unknowing / our fingers become / air / light / catastrophe / you don't understand / I care about the movies," he read, and "The air / the air / the air / which is so / smug sometimes" and "people are more interesting / than poems / but we need them / to understand them." And thus he folded in everyone in the park. The hula hoopers, the chess players, the smart-phone gamers.
The third section of Chris's reading offered new poems from his "Hymns" series, which he introduced with a litany of influences, most prominently Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and the Aboriginal tradition of songlines, both of which take the practice of singing as a crucial creative act. He read three pieces from the Hymns series, the first two for Coffee House Press authors— "The Voice," dedicated to Ted Mathys (author of Forge and The Spoils); "The Trees," dedicated to the author of the forthcoming Bright Brave Phenomena Amanda Nadelberg ("the trees shorthand clatter . . . I only want to live truly / where the trees / tear me apart"); and "The Balloon," for yours truly— "how small the world / must have been / before we were / lying into it." He ended his reading with a reprise of the rap, joined by his very own wife. You read that right, reader, I rapped with him. This is what happens when you really, really love someone.
Paul returned to center stage to introduce Joseph Lease, offering an impressive quote from Janet Desaulniers about his newest collection, Testify: "Joseph Lease is the actual real and important deal. He’s Whitman. He’s Lincoln. He’s Lester Young before the world won. Which is to say, Container of Multitudes/Voice of the Epic. Melancholic Visionary. Cool Breeze Speaker of a new Vernacular." As if to illustrate this bestiary of identities, an elderly shirtless man walked by, disembodied saxophones honked, and the hula-hoopers continued in earnest.
Joseph's next poem, "Magic," is, according to its author, about health care, and magic, because they're starting to be the same thing. There was something arresting about health care being called out so publicly as a dramatic, mysterious phenomena. Health care is the reason many people get married, as is religion, which Joseph alludes to, soaked in irony: "Jesus gave me laws, he gave me diamond rings." Oh individualism, you have left your mark, indelibly, on American letters. If you asked Joseph Lease where individualism, finally, gets us, he might respond with the last line of "Magic": "before you know it / you're lying in a pool of your own blood / I hear that everywhere I go."
Joseph's third poem, "America," (written, as Joseph noted, during the second term of George W. Bush's presidency) continued in the same vein as "Magic," taking America to task for its failures, but this time with inexorable echoes of Allen Ginsberg's Howl. "America / wake up / you're not the truth," he read, "write to your congressional representative / write to your congressional representative" and "Hey Kids! Big Sexy Corporation!" The poem was anaphoristic in bursts, a mashup of Ginsberg's earnest pleas and Burroughs' droll, repetitive utterances. And Joseph's own voice, of course: "Try saying wren / Try saying mercy." This is not a lament, it's a command to both self and audience: remember the forgivable world. Joseph's final poem, "Broken World," was written for James Assatly, a novelist who died on his 31st birthday of an AIDS-related illness. It's a tremendously moving poem in the elegiac form that Joseph Lease seems drawn to, and in which his repetitions and cut-up poetics flourish and flash, refracting the discomfiting instability of memory: "you are with me and I shatter everyone who hates you," he read, and read again. "the word / the word of God / the word of God in a plastic bag," he read. "Arrows on snow." By this point, the saxaphonists had retired. The dance music booming from the end of the park had been turned off. Just the sussurating trees made themselves heard.
In her poem, "Designer Gloom," she acknowledged that "many people have a taste for ruins. . . but ruin today / hasn't the proper time to decompose itself. / Scandal is too swift; the new overtakes / the not-yet-old." In the end, she offered this challenge to other poets— "nowhere is there a poet who sings the sanitized decadence of our times." Elaine has elsewhere written of ambition and the confusing economy of poetry, and many of her poems in Click and Clone serve as cautionary tales, delivered with a tone that falls somewhere between the parable and the joke. She reminds me of a latter-day Marianne Moore, (even down to the signature dress— I believe I have only ever seen her in stripes) who wrote famously of poetry, "I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. / Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it after all, a place for the genuine. / Hands that can grasp, eyes that can dilate." Indeed, what is it about hands? What is it about hula-hoops, saxaphones, other people's books? Our attention is diverted, is cut-up, is everywhere-at-once, but all three readers on Tuesday offered us song and story as a way of understanding that both acknowledges this way of seeing and holds its objects to the light for a little longer.
Elaine finished her reading with a series of found poems cribbed from the lines of other peoples books glanced at on the subway, each one reminding us of the baroque dramas in which our fellow passengers are caught up as they ride the rails with us: "Because of me, Barrie said forlornly" "I don't buy this 'seclusion' nonsense for a moment." There is something irresistible about the way pulp fiction offers a chance to its audiences to be the lynchpin, the catalyst, or in some cases, the jester — from a J.A. Jance mystery: "But what about the chicken? Oh for God's sake, Beau, lay off that chicken." And with that, Elaine Equi fastidiously collected her things, smiled sweetly, and exited the stage. The applause went all the way up to the trees.
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.
Justin Petropoulos on Word for Word Poetry, June 14
Featuring The Poets of CantoMundo
Hi everyone. I’m Justin Petropoulos, your humble stringer for the Word for Word poetry readings this summer, along with the incomparable Mary Austin Speaker. Thank you so much for having me.
It was a cool evening this Tuesday. Sweater-weather. Sun patinated by thin storm clouds, the white-throated sparrows darting in and out of the ivy, so precise they seemed mechanical. Then the raindrops began to fall, although at first you couldn’t tell if it was rain or just the breeze winnowing water from the leaves of the canopy above the Reading Room. With rain threatening, and just a few of us peppering the rows of folding chairs, our host, Paul Romero, decided not to gamble on the clouds restraint and moved the reading to the Bryant Park Corporation Offices across the street. Paul remarked that the move would make the reading a more intimate affair, and he was right. Intimacy was one of the most powerful elements of the night; it was in every word spoken by the poets and in every breath drawn by the audience in response to their poems.
In his introduction, Paul Romero remarked that this seasons readings were a tribute to small and mid-sized publishers of poetry, and that night was dedicated to the poets of CantoMundo. While not a publisher of poetry proper, CantoMundo’s mission is to cultivate a community of Latin@ poets through workshops, symposia, and public readings, while also providing a space for the creation, documentation, and critical analysis of Latin@ poetry. We were lucky enough to have two of its founding members Carmen Tafolla and Deborah Paredez there to share their work and vision.
The evening began, however, with the newest member of CantoMundo’s community of fellows, Diana Marie Delgado. Diana’s poetry is possessed by an epistolary intimacy and a lyricism whose descriptive power lies in its absences. In the poem, “Desire Is A Road,” the speaker tells us this about her mother: Whenever/I’d ask for advice, /she’d shrug, point to the elms. The leaps her poems make between ideas create a surreal tracery that draws the listener into a series of private conversations. In the poem, “Correspondences,” a letter to her brother who is incarcerated, this intimacy shines through in lines like: Remember when the field/froze white and Mom tied plastic over our shoes? / This is the only place that’s ever felt like home. I hope you get this/letter before lockdown. Or have you learned how to read in the dark? These poems make you feel like you are catching whispers in the wind, or being invited to eavesdrop on a confession.
After reading a few poems in a quiet, almost monastic voice, Diana stopped to explained that she was reading poems from a collection in progress and that at some point during its creation she realized she was writing a memoir not a book of poems in the traditional sense. Her first poem, “The Sea is Farther Than Thought,” touches on many of the themes that permeate through her work: family, religion, ethnicity, the socio-political landscape of the U.S. and is also representative of the way her lyrics move between these ideas. She writes:
In church, the boys have so much/light, plants grow towards them. /My aunt handed me an organdy/fan and said: Hold this if you’re frightened/or want to lose yourself—the devil/can dance like a goddamn dream…My brother walked into a garage/with a needle taped to a battery/and emerged with his stomach/tattooed. I don’t think I’ll touch a face/like that again. Across the street, wetbacks/sleep five to a room and sweep/and water their dirt, while children send/canoes without oars down the Hudson. /Let me explain western expansion:/Snow unfolded over a wagon train/of nine and nothing without wings survive.
But all of these themes seem secondary to Diana’s fierce desire for preservation, to document what is private and make it public without loosing any of its original intimacy, and in doing so, connect us to the people, the language, that have made and moved her.
Deborah also confessed to the audience that, almost against her will, King Kong has a major roll in After The Life, so much so that he is given voice in a persona poem called “King Kong Reconsiders.” The poem is a litany of situations from the film in which, if he had them to do over again, he would act differently. It is a hilarious premise for obvious reasons, but it further exposes the hopelessness of Lucia’s memory loss. The poem makes the scenario of a fictional gorilla capable of “reconsidering” a situation possible, while Lucia losses more and more of that capacity. Deborah went on to explain that the persona poems play an important role in the collection, many in the voice of Lucia herself. The poem “Luck,” for example, which Deborah read with the sly tone of a seasoned gambler, is on its surface, Lucia’s definition of luck, but I couldn’t help but feel as though Lucia was talking about memory. The poem concludes with the lines: It’s about knowing who you are, chosen/ for exalted acts: wager like a raised/ knife on the mount, willing to lose it all. Deborah read poems from her first collection, This Side of Skin, as well, one in particular, the poem “Love Sonnet: The Eclipse,” a poem about a romantic encounter, or revelation, during an eclipse, contained some of my favorite lines of the evening. She writes: There and then, I began/to know the shape of a whole body carved/ away by the shadow of another. These lines seemed to frame much of her reading for me, because so much of who we are exists in the memory of others, “carved away” by that “shadow” of memory cast by other bodies.
Carmen prefaced many of the poems she read with stories that explained her thought process during each works creation, which grounded her metaphorical poetics in a very personal context. Before read the poem, “The Alamo Is An Olmec Head,” she explained that living in San Antonio, she is often asked about the Alamo and this poem is her response to a revered and mythologized history, which conceals not only the events that took place there, but what those event signify for the larger hegemony. Couched in a description of an Olmec Head, Carmen makes her most pointed commentary about the Alamo and history as a whole: The lips are thick and parted with words you don’t want to hear. She continued her reading with two poems about rebozos, which she explained as a type of shawl originating in Mexico, lifting the sea-blue wrap that spanned her shoulders, covering her hands. The second poem, “Mujeres del rebozo rojo,” which she read from her collection Sonnets and Salsa, was for me, the most striking because it seemed like Carmen’s ars poetica, one that speaks for and as a community. The rebozo and the speakers (the poem uses the first person plural) merge, and wish: …To unfold our lives as if they were a rebozo/revealing its inner colors, /the richness of its texture, the strength of its weave, / the history of its making. It is a very human desire—to reveal—and its power lies in the vulnerability it expresses and in the connections we find to each other in those moments. I feel honored to have been in attendance to hear these three poets read together for the first time as representatives of CantoMundo, thank you all for your generous voices.
Justin Petropoulos is the author of Eminent Domain, which was selected by Anne Waldman for 2010's Marsh Hawk Press Poetry prize. His poems have appeared in A cappella Zoo, American Letters & Commentary, Anemone Sidecar, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Crab Creek Review, Gulf Coast, MiPOesias, and Portland Review, as well as work forthcoming in Mandorla. Justin received his MFA from Indiana University and is a co-curator of Triptych Readings. He lives in Brooklyn with his pet octopus Siete.