Thursday, June 28, 2012

Word for Word Poetry with Letras Latinas

We have the help of some very special guest bloggers at the Word for Word Poetry series this summer. They capture a first-hand account of the poetry readings, as well as help to interpret the work of the talented poets who present in the Bryant Park Reading Room sponsored by HSBC.

Amanda O’Connor for Word for Word Poetry, June 26, 2012
Featuring the poets of Letras Latinas

The warm weather held well into the evening on the first Word for Word reading of summer.  In partnership with Letras Latinas, Bryant Park’s reading room was alive with bilingual poetry, dipping into performance, music, and even new media.  Under the shade of a tree canopy, excitement and energy burst from the night’s readers.

Aracelis Girmay opened the evening with a sweet work, “Ode to the Little R,” which is about the “little helicopter” rolled R in her name.  She describes an experience she often had growing up—and still experiences—of people mis-correcting the pronunciation of her own name.  That little rolled R between the two A’s is butchered, time and again, into a hard R.  More than a simple mispronunciation, though, it is a certain phrase that nagged her heart, “You mean Ar-a-cel-is,” as if she’d intended to say it like a real American, but her native tongue got in the way.  My heart truly sank as I listened to this poem.  I have about as much hope of rolling an R as an elephant riding a unicycle.  It’s as if my mouth is numb with Novocain.  An engine that won’t start.

Girmay’s work has a unique balance of perspective.  Her poems are both in tune to the world around her and yet inwardly focused.  I found this to be best exemplified in “Henry Dumas’ Outer Space Blues.”  The poem’s roots are clearly in Girmay’s lineage, going so far as to laundry-list her forefathers, from Henry Dumas to Sun Ra, Malcolm X to Martin Luther King Jr.  The style plays right into the rhythms of jazz, interweaving passages from Dumas’ “Outer Space Blues.”  The poem has the pace of a subway ride—zipping past the local stops and screeching to a halt before moving right along again.  In spite of all the observations, the environmental cues, and the language of others, there is no doubt that the poem is about herself, her own experience, her own way through the world.  Instead finding the universal within herself, Girmay has taken the world and put it into her heart.  In that heart, we find a simple word—Loisfoeribari.  What could this word mean, the final poem wonders.  And yet, there it is, Love is for everybody. 

UrayoĆ”n Noel did not read his poetry, he performed it.  He sang and danced it.  Noel called the first work an ambient poem, but I’m not sure if I take his word for it.  The rapid fire rhymes soaked up meaning, though perhaps not narrative.  Noel’s right leg stamped like a double-time metronome bouncing off of each syllable:  “Sickness to spreadsheet…emotion to mundane…clamor to ember….D-day traders.”  He writes in the pace of sidewalks, the pace of his mind, even when it’s staring at endless cells in Excel.  By Noel’s second poem, “Pills & Booze,” he transformed into a flamingo, standing on one leg with the other bent at the knee.  It was as much fun to watch him read as it was to listen to his work—both full of life and energy.  The refrain is a slacker mantra:  “I spend my nights alone / collecting lint in my underwear.”  The rhymes and meter are simplistic--Calls, walls, Mall—nevertheless hypnotic.  Writing a manifesto (Noel’s own classification) about watching infomercials might be relegated to the microgenre of Lazy Apartment Poetry.  I can assure you, though, that the subject might be laziness, but the performance is not.  Not every poet breaks a sweat bopping to his own rhythms.

It occurred to me, while scribbling down notes on sheets of loose leaf, that paper is becoming obsolete.  Within the last year, I’ve been to more readings during which the poet pulls out his smartphone to read, and have observed how the medium is affecting the work itself.  And with this growing technology, there are errors of course—the audio isn’t quite right, the poem’s lines are longer than the screen, and so on—but poetry is adapting. The soundtrack that played while writing the poem can become a part of that poem.  Noel is interested in exploring new media, and is a poet to look out for.  Passersby Bryant Park certainly did, stopping strangers in their tracks.

I did not envy following Noel’s high-energy performance, though I’m certainly glad Dan Vera did.  His more subdued, thoughtful style helped put the evening in context.  While both Grimay and Noel have roots in slam, Vera exists on the page. His reading voice was clear and unadorned, and I found him to be an ideal balance between Girmay’s M.F.A. infused style and Noel’s explosive persona.  And while Vera even included poems on the same subjects as the previous two readers, hiss work seemed to pick up and run where the others left off.  Like Girmay, he also read about rolled R’s becoming hard.  While Girmay’s poem is primarily about this part of her own name and that nagging correction, Vera talked about the countryside—Los Angeles and La Jolla.  He explained how, being Cuban in Texas, his Spanish was never quiet Cubano enough for his relatives in Miami, nor Chicano enough for the southwest.  In this way, it became broader than Spanish; I thought of how we speak American instead of English, Italian-Americans .  Vera seemed to find the universality of “mangled accents” and “twisted tenses” that we all experience.  He also read a poem bouncing off of Noel’s central theme of monotony.  Vera brings us into the “death cell” of the cubicle.   While Noel left us on the couch watching another infomercial, Vera reminds us that an orchid on the desk of a cute receptionist can “make the stale air bloom.”

I think the culmination of these poets was Vera’s “Emily Dickinson at the Poetry Slam.”  After listening to two poets whose work is influenced by the composite genre, it was especially entertaining to imagine how the world would react to hearing Dickinson for the first time at a slam.  Vera describes the young Dickinson heading on a train to Boston, taking her place on stage, and blowing the world away.  Her poems are destructive and healing, overtaking the whole city.  The effects of Dickinson’s own poems even overwhelms herself, leading her back to Amherst and keep her poems private.  The overblown description of how the world fell down at her slant rhyme is a perfect metaphor for how poetry was both destroyed and reborn at her words, how my heart feels every time I recall a line or two.

Even with my minimal Spanish, each poet conveyed a grander sense of cultural dichotomies many of us contain.  Instead of a rolled R, there may be a guttural in your name that becomes “ch.”  Perhaps one-too many substitute teachers paused at the –czyk in your Polish surname.  In a world transitioning from old media to new, there is still space for poetry.  And yet, as Emily Dickinson observed over a century ago: “the skies are in blossom.”

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."  

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