Michael Klein for Word for Word Poetry, May 28, 2013
featuring Canadian poets and writers from Tightrope Books
The rain moved the Word for Word Poetry series indoors on May 29th, to the wonderful library at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, which also hosts the Small Press Book Fair every year. It was an evening of Canadian poetry and celebration of Tightrope Books.
Sue Goyette read first and, probably more than any other Canadian on the program, talked a lot about Canada. Most of what Ms. Goyette read were poems of place – what one feels about place and how a place is perceived by people who don’t necessarily live there. She told a wonderful story about living in Halifax, Nova Scotia where all the downhill roads lead to the ocean and if you’re on a bike you need to make sure the brakes are working well so you don’t bike down and get taken by the sea.
Aside from being a good storyteller, Ms. Goyette was also a wonderful reader and began with her poem “The Canadian Apology” – about the somewhat silly ways Canada is perceived by outsiders (perhaps most humorously expressed by the line: “We’re sorry one of us invented frozen fish filets”). But the poem was – like most humorous poems – also deeply felt moved from humor to quiet wonder all in the same key: “We’re even sorry for feeling a little lucky”. The poet also spoke of both the pleasurable and the overwhelming experience of editing this year’s Best Canadian Poetry anthology – a series helmed by Molly Peacock, who also read.
Nyla Matuk read next and the poems were of such density and of wild invention that I couldn’t write any of the lines down fast enough and be certain I was listening accurately – a strange sensation, to be sure. Her poems are kalidoscopic and, like Ashbery, I suppose come with the instructions on how to read them. By that I mean, don’t look for complete sense or logic here – but a flagrant, irreverent and somewhat intense foray into both language’s associational power and how sound gives the poem its sense.
“Like a crest falling in a foghorn” she begins one poem – and that one phrase, in a way, describes the feeling I had listening to all the poems Ms. Matuk gave us. We also learned that she hates spring because of a wicked case of hay fever and that she is somewhat obsessed with the character of Don Draper from television’s “Mad Men” whom she managed to put into two poems. I also learned that she is someone driven by language so completely that you need to just trust you’ll be able to leave the deep and surrealistic woods she’s taken you into. All she can tell us, as she does in her last poem of the evening, “Theory” is: get to the truth by crossing the bridge.
Jim Nason, the evening’s third reader, started by saying the poems were new and he’d never read them out loud – but felt compelled to which, of course, was our great gain. Mr. Nason began with “Shroud”, a poem about 9/11 which was more multi-dimensional than most poems written about 9/11 (no towers or planes here; instead, the speaker looks into a pit and sees: “a desk, a ring, a ring finger?” and later the great line: “as if God mistook Manhattan for a cluttered table.”) But the poem’s competing focus is fixed on the fireman who becomes a guide to hell as much as – could he be, a love interest? – he is a kind of beacon leading the speaker of the poem out of the wreck. The poem ends with this searching line delivered to the fireman: “What could have possessed him to show me what he’d seen.”
Nason also read a fine poem about Frederico Garcia Lorca recognizing and reveling and, at times, identifying with Lorca’s homosexuality. And, in another poem which continued a kind of leitmotif about gay life and its complexity, Nason ended his reading with a touching poem about being in a relationship with a married man. The lie, he called it.
Elise Partridge read three poems (everybody did). One of the poems was about an old stove that a kindly old man fixed and just wanted, as payment, two loaves baked in it. The second poem was about a snake eating a frog. The snake was drawn, beautifully, as “a drowsy magistrate hearing a plea”. The last poem was about blurry vision – and the quiet sense of trauma that strikes all of us in our 40’s or ‘50’s when we can’t see the world as clearly as we used to see the world – a poem about “wanting to see everything!” Partridge firmly reminded us before reading what she had written. “Are you too dim for the world to keep courting” she asks at the end.
Partridge revels in the everyday the way a poet like Matuk, for instance, revels in the complete opposite – the other-worldly – which is another revelation that made this evening so interesting. Each one of the poets, I would have to say, had completely different concerns and all of them read the work that best represented those concerns.
Molly Peacock reads poetry out loud unlike anyone you’re ever likely to hear. Each line is so carefully measured for nuance that one senses in this very forthright and original style of reading that some poems are literally a sum of their parts and we hear as she reads her almost building them before us. Almost theatrical in her presentation of the work – but reined in just a bit (for humility?) – Peacock read three wonderful new poems from the manuscript she has just finished about having a therapist and being in therapy which, for her, is a kind of being in love. Peacock was also, to my mind, the real laureate of the group – a Canadian transplant (she lived for years in New York City before moving to Toronto) – having established a literary reputation in the U.S. as well as Canada.
Her poems are funny – if nothing else – but also completely original, spare and deeply moving. Her first poem, “Paid Love” (wonderful title), had to do with the give and take in therapy and the sense of the diminishing lines which identify that relationship over time. “Minds have bones” she says in the poem and one realizes in hearing Peacock’s work that she is as finely attuned to the idea that the ephemeral has a kind of physical shape to it.
The last poem she read, “The Last Time” was a short and funny lament about breaking up with someone on a rainy, rainy, day. “I threw off my sodden coat off for the last time” finishes the poem in a grand gesture which also describes the way Peacock comes through in her own work: dramatic, ironic and very wise.
Moez Surani – the most elliptical of the six poets that read – writes lovely short poems most about traveling the world and taking in as truthfully as possible what makes South Korea or Latvia or any number of places intimate. The poems are personal and surprising and feel, in a way, like prayers being asked or being answered.
In one lovely poem, “Near the Pagoda” he writes about South Korea and a temple there where people believe that reincarnation happens in clusters – i.e., a father could be a brother in the next life and so on. In “Near the Pagoda”, Surani writes, “Everything of me was different” and later… “… and with all my selves, call you mother, sister, wife, daughter.”
The poems are simple – most of the poems of the evening came across this way – and striking – with slight and satisfying surprises along the way – the most surprising in Mr. Surani’s last poem, “It All Keeps” which began “There are bells under your shirt”.
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.