Amanda O’Connor on Word for Word Poetry, May 22, 2012
Featuring the poets of Barrow Street Press
Last Tuesday marked the first installment of the ninth annual Bryant Park Summer Reading Series, sponsored by Barrow Street Press and University of Pittsburgh Press. After the week’s thundershowers, the air was thick with humidity and the smell of wet grass. The audience was unfathomable — friends of the poets, lovers of poetry, curious passersby, chess players within earshot, businessmen rushing with briefcases, children cart-wheeling on the lawn, fathers, and of course tourists. Unlike so many poetry readings huddled in the back of bookshops, the Bryant Park Reading Room is especially enticing to those who weren’t planning to attend at all. One audience member admitted that he’d never read a poem before coming to this reading. Listening to contemporary poetry between the sounds of 42nd Street traffic is one of New York’s lingering romances, whether you are a connoisseur or a first-timer.
Lesley Wheeler opened the evening, reading from her latest collection, Heterotopia (Barrow Street Press, 2010). The collection imagines her mother’s childhood in Liverpool during the Blitz. The poems, many of which are written from the perspective of her mother as a young woman, express more than fantasies and daydreams. On one hand, Liverpool seems more like home than the poet’s native New Jersey; it is her birthright. On the other hand, the darkness of the Blitz hangs heavily over her mother’s childhood. The complexity of these second-hand memories is as twisted and entwined as the internal rhyme. Wheeler puts us into those rooms, take us to the middle of a conversation even she never had. It becomes clear that Wheeler’s sense of identity is tied so closely to a life she never lived, a place she cannot ever go.
Wheeler then read from her first collection, Heathen (C&R Press, 2009), opening with “Dead Poet in the Passenger Seat.” She prefaced it by explaining how she feels haunted by Emily Dickinson, and that she has conversations with E.D. on long car rides. Me too! Wheeler is clearly indebted to Dickinson, and this is a wonderful tribute to the poet. She evokes some of Dickinson’s stylistic earmarks without losing her own voice. She then read an ode to her male influences titled “Paternity Suits.” It laundry listed male poets from Keats to Merrill, qualifying each with a few lines of admiration in each poet’s style. My personal favorite was Allen Ginsberg’s Broccoli! Broccoli! Broccoli! It was a real crowd pleaser.
While many of the poems Wheeler read were haunting meditations of the past and the dead, “Virginia Is for Heterosexual Lovers” takes place in the moment. The poem is in response to a homophobic slur made by a health inspector. It goes on to list a number of gross-out things to do with food, things that the speaker of the poem claims to be normal in her family, even though the health inspector would certainly find it disgusting. (Blue cheese has never seemed quite so hilarious and gross.) But then, with authority, finesse, anger, and poignancy, she points out that none of these things are as disgusting as telling a five year old child how to feel and whom to love.
Ely Shipley read from his debut (and highly decorated) collection Boy with Flowers (Barrow Street Press, 2008). Before diving into his poems, Shipley cautioned that his work deals with gender identity, which some past audiences have found confusing. But behind the lines about male sea horses and elementary school lavatory lines, there were sensitive and thoughtful poems revealing wide-open wounds. Shipley impressively confronts and controls difficult memories with the honest voice of a child or adolescent experiencing them. Rather than reflect on the past with wizened hindsight, he brings us back into the moments that both confuse and inform us. The crowd recoiled with him in embarrassment, and was reflective during pensive moments. It was as if the air transformed and thickened, the weight of Shipley’s poetry hanging heavily. Though he described experiences few in the audience could directly relate to, Shipley’s poems captured the shame and loneliness we all know well.
In the poem “In the Film,” the passivity of watching a movie becomes deeply felt empathy for the heroine. The speaker knows her thoughts and feeling, her loneliness, simply by watching from above. The camera becomes a mind-reader, rather than a lens into a scene. Often at readings, I wish I had a copy of the poem to hold and re-read and sink into the lines, and this was certainly one of those poems. I was particularly struck by “Deer Fallen Between Branches,” directly addressing the FTM transition. In two subtle lines he writes, “She’s like a photograph/of himself as a child.” I find this to be a perfect summation of his work. It is both quiet and resonant, expressing a lifetime in a two pronouns.
Scott Hightower swaggered up to the microphone with the confidence of an actor, rather than a poet. Even before he began to read from his latest book, Self-Evident, (Barrow Street Press, 2012), he announced that he prefers to sit at his desk writing in his underpants than going out and doing things. But alas, he conceded, one must do things. Hightower’s personality is certainly larger than the tent in Bryant Park’s Reading Room, and so were the subjects of his poems. Though the opposite of Shipley in stature, Hightower’s poems were almost like continuations. Where Shipley’s work focused on childhood, fraught identity, and isolation, Hightower’s poems seemed to have grown out of similar feelings. Out of heart ache, there is opera. Out of loneliness, he found his sweetie in Madrid.
With unabashed rhymes, Hightower writes beyond his own experiences to confront the big and beautiful. He brings us into the French Revolution and La Boehme, to Tosca and the depression lurking inside his refrigerator. Where else but a poetry reading, I wondered, can I listen to rhymes en français and in italiano prounouced with a Texas drawl? Perhaps his best of the evening was “Valentine for my Sweetie.” My heart raced down the laudry list of lines—you are my this, you are my that. He elevates a trite formula into a cheeky, joyous, senstive, and humbling love letter. I was overcome hearing it, knowing that I am not its intended audience. I felt privledged to have heard that poem.
Richard Blanco was introduced for the evening, the night’s emcee and organizer, Paul Romero, said that Blanco’s poems felt like a movie, and that his family was straight out of a sitcom. After such lavish praise, my critic’s ear went into red-alert. Is this guy really all that? As soon as Blanco began reading from his book Looking for the Gulf Motel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012), I was sold. He began with “Betting on America,” a magnificently narrative poem about his family betting on the Miss America pageant. Listening to this poem was like sitting around a dinner table flowing with wine and stories told a thousand times over. Closing my eyes, I saw the dark yellow walls of the rooms and could smell cilantro. Blanco doesn’t actually mention either of these details in the poem, but I was there, in the home of his Cuban-American (heavy on the Cuban) family.
The poems Blanco read primarily dealt with the dual identity of being from an immigrant family—Cuban but not in Cuba, a Cuban neighborhood far away from America yet within its borders. Like each poet before him—Wheeler in Liverpool, Shipley’s gender identity, and Hightower’s past and present—Blanco made clear that having two cultures can be a good as having neither. Instead of being a part of two worlds, we become outsiders in both.
The collection’s title poem “Looking for the Gulf Motel,” describes how, as adults, we the revisit landmarks of childhood, expecting them to be exactly as we left them. Of course these places have changed and grown, just as we have. Blanco half-expects to see his mother cooking pork in flip-flops when he visits the motel. It was a place just far enough from his childhood home to qualify as a vacation, and in some way, that makes it more of a home. He doesn’t travel his mother this time, but his partner. “Looking for the Gulf Motel” reminded me of my own partner, when he brought me to Weirs Beach. While I saw a run-down boardwalk in New England, I could tell that he was looking for the arcades and treats of his childhood. Blanco, however, shows us what can’t be seen, what only exists in his memories.
These immensely private poems were made public in Bryant Park, individual experiences about finding one’s own identity were made universal, one reader after another. I’d like to thank each poet for sharing such intimate work, and Paul Romero for bringing them all together.
Amanda O'Connor is an editorial assistant at Cambridge University Press, and a consulting editor for Love Among the Ruins Press. Currently, she is collaborating with Deepak Chopra on an ebook series of his advice column, "Ask Deepak."