Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Word for Word Poetry Blogs

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 attend each Poetry event, and provide a first-hand account of the talented poets' readings. Take their word for it, or experience Word for Word Poetry yourself every Tuesday through September 6, from 7pm to 8:30pm, at the Bryant Park Reading Room.

Mary Austin Speaker on Word for Word Poetry, June 28, 2011

On Tuesday, June 28, four days following the New York Senate's decision to legalize same-sex marriage, three poets came together in Bryant Park to read their work, offering a perspective on gay life both sobering and hopeful. Only one mention was made of the historic decision— but we are at a point in history when the legality of marriage is only the newest, most formal part of the lives of gay men and women. Tuesday's reading portrayed a rich, volatile, deeply complex existence— one that took us from the personal drama of publicizing one's sexual preferences to the specter of the AIDS crisis.

As the scaffolds rattled with drills across Fifth avenue, as the citizens and tourists went about finishing up their days as though nothing was any different (how very like New Yorkers), Paul Romero opened the evening with a quote from Paul Engle: "Poetry is ordinary language to the nth power." And with that, Francisco Aragon took the stage. Francisco Aragon is the director of Letras Latinas, the literary program of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, editor of Contra Cosas (a Latino book series) and the author of the poetry collections, The Glow of Our Sweat and Puerta del Sol. Francisco began by offering a shout-out to Macondo, the socially-engaged writers workshop in San Antonio founded by Sandra Cisneros that works to serve underrepresented communities. "Viva Macondo!," he began, and then offered a poem, "Bridge Over Strawberry Creek," from his first collection, Puerto del Sol.

The poem is cinematic, beginning with a view through a window framed by redwoods, and continues in its spare, deliberate, way, a winding of the attention through space and time that offered an embodied experience of memory— this image stood out: "I'm twelve. . . snug in the bag . . . the towels, the soap, the rich later lacing his chest." The following poem, "Torso," offered a riff on Rilke's famously startling poem, "Archaic Torso of Apollo"— but instead of Apollo, the figure being observed (or observing the speaker) is "short and disfigured," a "sinewy beast of prey." The poem continued its darker version of Rilke's poem by ending with a command fraught with the peril that comes with true intimacy— "Step closer. Go blind." Aragon continued with a bright, spare elegy for a college mentor, "The Slide," which abstracted memory just enough to place it in a city— "late afternoons, that July, a bench, a view, men trailing dogs"— the specifics, he seemed to imply, are unimportant— what matters is the people, the act of observing together. Cinema appeared at the center of Aragon's poem "The Tailor," about a film seen at Madrid's state-run movie house, La Filmoteca, and is recreated throughout this poet's work through a deftly placed perspective— much as a movie camera offers us only one point of view of a narrative, Aragon's poems allow for memories to unfurl around one calm, unwavering attention. He ended with two paragraphs excerpted from essays— one about a graduate school friend unwittingly asking his permission to out him before his classmates, the other a meditation on a favorite marathon. "Vertigo. . . we enter the chutes at the finish line . . . It is, was, my favorite race during those years when running was my life," offering us the out-of-body experience of the long distance runner. The trees rustled, spokes of a memory lodging itself in. I can only hope to preserve my memories the way Francisco Aragon does. Listening to him reminded me of a bit of Chris Marker's film, Sans Soleil, in which the narrator, who obsessively films everything around him, wonders how some people don't film or photograph. How do they keep anything, he wonders. Francisco Aragon's poems provide unmistakeable evidence that poems offer a kind of capture that is of a piece with photography— every bit as skewed, lush, subjective and absolutely necessary.

Second up was Ron Drummond, founding editor of Barrow Street and winner of the 2004 Portlandia Group Chapbook Competition for his chapbook, Why I Kick At Night. Drummond immediately charmed the audience with his infectious enthusiasm and apparent love for poetry, taking full advantage of poetry's performative allowances. His diction is of the anglo-saxon sort, despite his clear fluency in EspaƱol—he not only shares a name with the great Brazillian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, but has translated the Argentine poet Olga Orozco with Guillermo Castro, and is a fellow Macondista with Francisco Aragon. He read first the title poem from his chapbook, a poem that accumulates meaning and psychic weight over its considerable length— he moves from explaining why he kicks at night "because I haven't yet figured out how to sing in my sleep," to "I'm the older twin; my brother says he kicked me out" to "because my HIV medication is bothering me. . . because Michael's heart is bothering him," to "Paul tells me my kicks are unuttered prayers" and ends with the triumphant advice to "kick because you can." Kicking in one's sleep becomes a stand-in for our flawed, helpless grace, our only way of contending with the terrible blows dealt to us and our loved ones. He moved on from this arresting piece to a poem about an unidentical twin, called "Meisos," after a line by Lorca— in which the specter of photography returned— he described the unidentical twin as "an afterimage, a negative I may develop as I wish." From this, Drummond turned toward play with a poem in the voice of a dog whose owner has read aloud to him the work of a certain 19th century poet. "His Master's Voice" uses the diction of the British Romantic poets, poking fun at their seriousness but reveling in the same pleasures, falling closer to Edward Lear than John Keats with his humor and appreciation of the strange drama that arises when animals observe humans and vice versa. In the end, Drummond saves pleasure for the subjective experience— even the dog given comfort and food each day will regard his daily bread as "pet shop slop," and fantasize about "sirloin hither thither" — "Pleasure never is at home," the poem ends, reminding us that even our most devoted friends look elsewhere, sometimes, for fantasy and stimulation. Next (and perhaps most memorably) Drummond mitigated the pall of death with a poem of striking drama which posited a lover considering ways in which to use his deceased lover's ashes as a beauty aid, transforming himself, finally, into the man he was when they met, a fitting tribute to their initial spark. He ended with the only poem of the evening that offered a glimpse into what the New York Senate's recent decision might mean for those who can now legally marry— he read a poem for a man called Wayne, who will be his father-in-law, on the occasion of his 80th birthday. It was a tender, beautiful, funny poem that paid tribute to a man who would offer "a quarter-smile," and patience with a son-in-law-to-be who clearly admired him.

Tom Healy, author of What the Right Hand Knows, noted gallerist, and recently appointed by President Obama to the Fulbright Scholarship board, offered the final reading of the night. Paul Romero introduced him with a quote from Carol Muske-Dukes, who described Healy's poetry as "a sharp edge of art . . . keeping things in perspective." Healy picked up on the theme that had been kindled by the evening's two previous readers, and began by saying, "since it's a sultry summer night and I'm drenched in sweat, I should begin with sex. . . " and so we were given "Body Electric," a poem of brutal intimacy that understands the ways couples move in and out of one another's attention, and how their bodies come together all the more forcefully because of such diversions: "close your eyes / bite the pillow / your belt is in my hands," he read, with unmistakeable tenderness. Healy's second poem, which he described as a tribute to Sister Wendy (presumably the art commentator and nun), about a Spartan general whose ashes were spread over the earth so that he would remain unsettled, wandering, tortured. In this poem, as in Ron Drummond's penultimate poem, the lover ingests the ashes of the beloved— "is this love? / the taste of ash / the grit of bone / becoming his tomb." As if to illustrate this poet's preoccupation with action over words, Healy told us about the 14th-century Italian painter Giotto, who, after running afoul of the pope, was pressed to prove his worth as an artist, and did so by drawing a perfect circle on a sheet of paper with a bit of coal. Healy in turn takes this story and turns it deftly abstract and then concrete again, demonstrating poetry's agility with his description of the circle— "The shape / of astonishment, / forever's empty frame / / a coin on the tongue, / how our eyes never are / But relax, love, / / into this world we're finding / and the perfect hurt / of how it turns."  Healy's next poem, "A Possum Entering the Argument," turned from the difficulty of time passing to the strangeness of being alive longer than expected. Ron Drummond, too, had touched on this life-after-expected-death in his reading, which served to remind us that for a certain generation, the AIDS crisis will forever be a binding agent that colors their lives, if differently from person to person. Healy's poems tend to be slightly shorter, offering brief glimpses of lives that seem wildly divergent but reflect the divergences of identity within all of us— boxer, rich man, farm boy, son, uncle. One such out-of-body experience offered a well-turned take on the specter of war— "the war itself is floating past / leaving something like ordinary days." Nearby the ground was being ripped apart, a piece of the park being fixed, something underground rooted out for repair. The genteel park-goers continued to go about their business. Despite the number of times I have been to readings in Bryant Park, I will never cease to be amazed at the drama of listening to poems in a group in the hive of activity that is midtown on a summer evening. The sun was setting over Times Square. The crowd was applauding. The readers, all of them, were suddenly flanked by friends and fans, collapsing the distance.


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. 

Past Word for Word Poetry Blogs

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