Michael Klein for Word for Word Poetry, May 21, 2013
featuring writers published by Hanging Loose Press
It was a beautiful, warm and windy summer-like evening for the second Word for Word Poetry reading in Bryant Park and four New York institutions took to the podium: Elizabeth Swados, Robert Hershon, Joan Larkin and Charles North. All the writers have had books published by Hanging Loose Press which is, in itself, a New York institution, founded in 1966 by Mr. Hershon.
Elizabeth Swados, who read first, said that her poems “come out of the sky” (an affirmation, I imagine, that may have to do with the fact that she is known mostly for her work in the theatre). Or maybe it was because the poems she read were not from her first and only book of poems, The One and Only Human Galaxy which is, ostensibly, a book of related poems about the life of Harry Houdini. She read, we have to assume, all new poems – the first of which (“The Contest”) was a free-associational rant about the emotionally tilted, bi-polar and manic depressives put on parade to rule what has become the “reality” culture – those people in trouble, that much of television and the print media can’t stop talking about. Swados is exasperated by it all: “The Anorexics are publishing more books!” she laments mid-way through the poem and she ends “The Contest” with the news that the most popular game show on television is one in which the loser shoots himself.
While that first poem is, in a way, breezy and hyperbolic, it also serves as a key to Swados’s larger concerns as a writer which have always been about community and politics – where the two happen to intersect and where the two exclude people. The poems she read were immediately accessible, humorous and irreverent (I am certain that there was not one poem that didn’t have a variation of “fuck” in it), but they were also concrete statements about how the world misrepresents us, fails us.
She’s hopeful about animals, though – but, even then, there’s some regret. One poem about a trip to an animal reserve and not seeing the animals that had been advertised in the brochure ends with Swados in her car, humorously acknowledging that the animals (in hiding?) didn’t know who somebody named Liz Swados was, either.
Robert Hershon was a complete delight – deck-shoe comfortable in front of an audience and tender hearted with the way he read his poems – many of which were in some way about getting older (“I write old and decrepit poems”), or about forgetting things, which is also about getting older:
“Mary Astor was a movie star Eddie Kranepool played first.Hershon is self-deprecating and doesn’t take anything too seriously except, perhaps, the literary establishment of which he is an integral but skeptical part. He is refreshingly anti-poetry-establishment (recounting the horror he felt while attending the recent AWP Conference in Boston) and you could sense a longing (and you could sense the same longing in everyone who read this particular night) to be back in another New York moment when poets like Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler and other poets/New Yorkers were lighting up the scene.
First what? Walter Lippmann wrote a column. Where to draw the line?
Franklin Roosevelt was a president of the United States. Faulkner wrote
Books. Honey, you look just like Veronica Lake. No, that's a person,
not a place.” -- “The Death of Reference”
Joan Larkin is, in my mind, one of the great – the way Akhmatova or Jane Kenyon or Jean Valentine are great – poets of our time. Her poems are direct, brief and quietly shattering and almost always double-sided: one thing sets off another thing; memory, itself, expands into a kind of volatile expression of what it means to be alive in the present moment. In her simple – even, at times ambiguous language – she is always tracking an abiding consciousness that is as critical as it is loving:
“I’m older than my father when he turnedLarkin read from her new book, “My Body,” a volume of new and collected poems, as well as some newer work and her last poem she read began as eloquently and mysteriously as any poem of hers that I’ve ever encountered:
bright gold and left his body with its used-up liver
in the Faulkner Hospital, Jamaica Plain. I don’t
believe in the afterlife, don’t know where he is
now that his flesh has finished rotting from his long
bones in the Jewish Cemetery ….” from “Afterlife”
“Before I saw him
I felt his blind cane digging
for purchase in my chest. I
was the road. Rocks, gnarled roots,
sudden hissing. I was the town
on the mountain, not drug sleep
in a fifth-floor walk-up….”
Charles North writes poetry that reminds me of this kind of joke. It all has a logic, but it’s all mixed up. North, who collaborated with the great James Schuyler and who called North “the most stimulating poet of his generation” was also the most experimental writer on the program – by which I mean, he puts words down for the way they sound together as much as for what they mean together. North – in an always brave gesture – only read one (but long) poem: the wonderfully titled, “Day After Day the Storm Mounted. Then it Dismounted” – which, even though it sounds like the title of a composition by Steve Reich – actually came to North when he overheard it coming from the next room (a Woody Woodpecker cartoon his son was watching).
The poem begins, “Suppose I am not the uplifter of all I have lift, in the same sense that the coal black sky stumbled and showing a few red streaks, doesn’t exactly equal space. The air is thick. Now, it swirls. It isn’t air.” Nobody sounds like this and North proceeds with a kind of kaleidoscopic array of found objects, lopsided aphorisms, and a phantasmagorical explanation for life in general. But, make no mistake, North is really playing – and playing with high stakes – with language until it all sounds almost familiar but really is something completely new:
“Here you are a highly educated person: hands, feet, chin, everything. One morning, out of the blue a flock of wild turkeys ….” He says in one poem. Everything gets thrown into a North poem and because the imagination is open, even wildly open, anything can happen.
Here’s a list he made:
“Beloved branch managerNorth is also a dry, but compelling reader – professorial, in a way – but, mad professorial, delivering a lecture from a seemingly parallel universe, just left of this one.
Esteemed concert mistress
Caring strip miner
Michael Klein's last book of poems, "then, we were still living" was a Lambda Literary Finalist and his first book, "1990" tied with James Schuyler to win the award in 1993. His new book of poems, "The Talking Day" was published in January, 2013. Recent work appears in Tin House, Ploughshares, Los Angeles Book Review and the Ocean State Review. He lives in New York City.