Thursday, August 23, 2012

Word for Word Poetry with Red Hen Press

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, August 21, 2012
Featuring the poets of Red Hen Press



A deep purple dusk drew over the American Radiator Building as Camille Dungy walked up to the podium in the Bryant Park Reading Room.  As night approached—a moody night, the promise of a storm—she opened with a poem from her latest collection, Smith Blue (Southern Illinois University Press, 2011) entitled “Out of the Darkness.” Dungy uses practically every connotation of darkness I can think of, contemplating the word, inverting it, and unfolding its many meanings.  She anthropomorphizes darkness:  both skin color and inner-nature, ignorance and the expanse of outer space.  Darkness is at war with itself, she writes “some of the darkness got away from the darkness.”  Within it, though, there is a star.

“Out of the Darkness” framed the many poems Dungy read.  Out of the darkness, she moved across the country (leaving a stack of unpaid parking tickets behind).  Out of the darkness, a 16-year-old girl explores her sexuality.  Out of the darkness, a woman becomes a mother.  Dungy also read a short elegy for Adrienne Rich, considering her arthritis and the even more painful inequalities around the world.  It reminded us of how much there is to celebrate, and still left overcome.  Dungy ended her reading on a note of celebration, feeling the heat of summer, the sensuality of eating.  Threaded through each of her poems is a fierce love of life that left the crowd warm and joyous.

Cynthia Hogue began with a transcription of a conversation about keeping a rock collection on a window still.  Out of context and on the page, it became an allegory for power dynamics.  It was practically of out Plato or Foucault, but playful because of its origins.  Hogue approached the mind of the oppressor of stones, trying to understand what it gains by imprisoning them.  The answer: to study them, to teach them, to control and protect them.  Hoarding these stone on a shelf keeps them “purified of being petrified.”  But when, asks the interviewers, “will you know what they have learned?”  When can they be freed? 

Hogue’s next work engaged with the victim, noting that the poem is in response to Virginia Woolf’s posthumous collection “Moments of Being.”  Woolf explains that the moments of being are those of clarity and transcendence, when our minds overcome consciousness to experience truth and reality.  We cannot be imprisoned if our minds are free.  Hogue plays on words to explain these two mental states, contrasting morality and mortality.  Morality defines the reality of our minds, while mortality defines our conscious existence.  Once these moments of being—of transcendence and power—are harnessed, people find enlightenment.  Hogue’s research of oppression took her to Louisiana to study late 19th century Creole Spiritualists.  In her next poem, she builds off of a document that could just as easily be attributed to John Stuart Mill, but was actually penned by an Afro-Caribbean vodouist.”Frère Voltaire,” it says, ending with the refrain “liberty, liberty, liberty.”  When the stones can think, they cannot be captured.

Dusk deepened by the time Douglas Kearney approached the microphone.  Though the back row of the Reading Room could have heard him without it, the mike helped his unsuspecting audience on 40th Street catch every word.  At Bryant Park’s readings, I am continually amazed at the number of passersby and chess players, tourists and businessmen, who stop for a moment and listen to poetry.  I am confident to say that I’ve never seen so many people stop, sit, and listen as they did during Kearney’s set—a testament to both his poetry and performance. With gusto and rage, Kearney inhibited a series of characters in as many motifs to describe his wife’s miscarriage.  First, he described it as if it were a magic show—the sleight of hand, the baby that disappeared.  Then he described a scene from a silent movie, a minstrel show, and finally poetic form.  For poetic form, he quietly recited, "Internal rhyme, perfect.  Internal rhyme, slant.  Internal rhyme, broken."  Kearney attempts to overcome this horrible experience by trivializing it, draping it in stereotypes and genre, only to reveal the raw experience. 

Kearney is peppy about atrocity, singing about sharks following slave ships across the Middle Passage waiting for dead flesh to drop off the deck.  He evokes mash-ups of pop music, collage of Art.  He draws on Parliament Funkadelic to The Little Mermaid to T.S. Eliot.  He sings and acts on stage.  So much meaning of these poems is derived from Kearney’s performance—his emphasis, voices, and vibrato—that I wondered how it would translate to the page.  After looking through his collection, The Black Automaton (Fence Books, 2009), it is obvious that he addressed the challenge many slam and performative poets face:  how can language alone convey the expression of my body?  Kearney uses the page as a plane for expression, not medium for typeface.  Just as his performance fills in his voice, drawings animate his words.  His work broadens poetry, and as evidenced by the number of those who stopped to listen, makes it exciting and accessible.

Sean Nevin’s poems took a more somber tone, reading primarily from his work about Alzheimer’s.  (He noted that he would hold off on the penis poems after Kearney’s explosive work on the subject.)   Nevin instead read from work that focuses on Solomon, a Korean War veteran suffering from the disease.  He has developed Solomon for the better part of a decade, which definitely came through in the work.  While so many poems are written in the first and second person, I find it refreshing to discover poets working in the third person.  Poetry can be a wonderful vehicle for narrative.  Nevin sets up the scene of a funeral parlor, featuring the perspective of a young boy seeing his father cry for the first time.  Nevin inhabits a wide span of time, just as Alzheimer’s affects the mind—the older man in looking back to his childhood, watching his father cry for his father.  In another poem, Nevin explored sundowning, comparing the mind to a broken clock still chiming.  His work clearly resonated with the audience; it became obvious that many had taken care of family and friends with dementia or Alzheimer’s.  As the audience applauded his work, Nevin politely requested that they hold their clapping to the end, noting that he had to use the bathroom, successfully lightening the mood.

Perhaps his strongest work of the evening was based on an anecdote about John Lennon and Mia Farrow’s sister, Prudence, at a meditation retreat in India (“Dear Prudence, come out and play…”).  The poem was structured around principals of fractal geometry.  Using the refrain “This poem is about…,” Nevin folded the poem in on itself, and growing out of itself.  He explored wealth disparity and reincarnation, dreams and bowl movements.  “Out of myself,” Nevin both begins and ends, “I am reborn.”

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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