Michael Klein for Word for Word Poetry, August 27th, 2013
Featuring Alice James Books
Tamiko Beyer read first and began, as she says she always begins a reading, by giving us the work written by someone else. She then proceeded to read three silly little poems by Yoko Ono, which, frankly were lost on me. Thankfully, Ms. Beyer’s work is a bit more, shall we say, complex and seems – at this outing, anyway – to be fairly dominated by water imagery. She is practically obsessed with it – as it takes the form of an ocean or the rain – and the poems she read almost all had something to do with the water world. Her first poem was about a manatee in New York Harbor in the form of the water as water and witness: “I stink. All that clutter in my gut,” New York Harbor says to the manatee. And then, “Adventure over, kid. From here on out, it’s all propeller.” Advice to get out of town. The strategy of getting something like New York Harbor to talk is one that works well for Beyer, as she is, I think, much more interested in giving voice to the things of this world that may not have one people can here.
The poems that followed had the same kind of quiet reverence for things greater than Ms. Beyer’s self and went back and forth between the actual world and the smaller, more intimate, familial world. And she reads those poems – even the more intimate ones – as if she is delivering the latest news: in a clipped, somewhat urgent voice. Her strongest poem may have been another poem about New York and taking a long walk through the fabled city: “We’re mislead by water towers … a drink without end.”
Beyer is also fascinated by the haibun form – a short prose poem (I’m not sure if there is a line count inherent here) that is then followed by a haiku. Her re-invention of the form, however, is to make the haiku sit on top of the prose poem which then, in a way, makes the whole thing read like a longer haiku. The strongest haibun she read had to do with a Nan Goldin photograph of a drag queen putting on her make-up in front of a mirror. “Gender becomes water becomes body becomes mirror,” the poem concludes. That blurring between the natural world and the one which inhabits the imagination, is, I think the driving force for Beyer and authenticates the work.
Jamaal May is almost blind in his left eye, and he writes dazzling poems that live somewhere between the street and academia about how he sees because of that blindness and in spite of it. They are forceful poems and emotional and timeless and in their way concern diction, love and violence, and the heartbeat/heart-felt push of history – particularly, at this reading, the history of Detroit and the now-dead empire of the automobile. Three men, in one poem, circle a “Chrysler’s dead left side…” and later one of them, remarks “I don’t get cars, but I get this..”
Like Beyer, May is also concerned with discovering and experimenting in new forms and read a wonderful poem about the names for certain fears (i.e., macrophobia, the fear of waiting) in a form attributed to poet Tyehimba Jess (who was in the audience). It was unfortunate, however, that he only read four or five poems and the audience really didn’t get enough of his work.
Matthew Olzmann really was the hit of the evening, I have to say. His poems were rhapsodic and elegiac and, most notably, really funny. He reminded me of two other Matthew poets – Dickman and Zapruder – as all three of these guys have a wondrous and sort of happy/sad way of looking at personal experiences and the world in general. There’s also a Dean Young and Mark Halliday influence here as well – a riffing quality that can be heard as a kind of stream of consciousness, but also manages to go pretty deeply into the complexity of the soul and what if found there. Aside from the varied and wondrous and wide array of subject matter available to him, Olzmann is really a terrific reader – engaged with his work in a way that many – if not most – poets who read their work out loud just aren’t. He should do a crash course for writers on how to read out loud.
The titles for these poems are also terrific and really give a strong sense of the quality of things to come. Some of the poems from his book, Mezzanines, are: “Mountain Dew Poem Disguised as a Love Poem,” “Planetarium with Deformed Elephants,” and “The Tiny Men in The Horse’s Mouth” – a poem which has this wild epigram by Dan Cummins: Never look a gift horse in the mouth? But what if on the horse’s tongue there’s a tiny little man playing piano? Why would you not look at that? That’s incredible.
Olzmann’s poems concern fractured youth and culture and science fiction and various other obsessions that all feel as though they’ve been keeping him awake for a long time. The poems are richly nuanced and completely inventive and illogical and their brilliance is in how they all sort of come together when they don’t always feel like they possibly could. They’re risky, in other words, and completely generous and are hell bent on raising the stakes in the sometimes pedestrian, narcissistic world of contemporary American poetry.
Michael Klein’s second book of poems, "then, we were still living"(GenPop Books), was a Lambda Literary Award finalist and his first book, "1990", tied with James Schuyler to win the award in 1993. His new book, “The Talking Day” was published in January, 2013 by Sibling Rivalry Press and a collection of short, lyric essays, "States of Independence" won the 2011 BLOOM Chapbook contest in non-fiction judged by Rigoberto Gonzalez and was published in 2012. His poems, essays and interviews with American poets have appeared in American Poetry Review, BLOOM, Fence, Tin House, Ploughshares, Provincetown Arts, Poets & Writers and many other publications. He has taught writing at Sarah Lawrence College, Binghamton University, Manhattanville and for the last 15 years has been part of the writing faculty at Goddard College, in Vermont. He lives in New York City and Provincetown, Massachusetts.