Monday, August 24, 2015

Word for Word Poetry Editions with Tupelo Press (Week of August 24th)

We have a collection of very talented guest bloggers to cover 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 our visiting poets who present at the Bryant Park Reading Room sponsored by HSBC

Laura Villareal for Word for Word Poetry, August 25, 2015
Featuring Tupelo Press

Carol Frost
The highly prolific poet Carol Frost began the evening with work from her newest collection, Entwined: Three Lyric Sequences. Like the title suggestions, Frost’s work over the years has been “entwined” to create her newest book. It seems that on some unconscious level Frost’s work has been speaking to each other over the years, prompting the re-sequencing of her previous work to create this new collection. The poems found in Entwined can be found scattered among her eleven previous collections, the bulk of which have come from: The queen’s desertion, Love and Scorn, and Honeycomb. It’s fascinating to read her previous books separately. Frost’s rich motifs cross from collection to collection and many of her poems call out to poems found in other books. It’s remarkable to read them finally together in Entwined where it’s clear that they truly speak to one another.

During the reading Frost explained that the third sequence of apiary poems use “the trope of bees as if the mind were a hive itself” to grapple with the topic of dementia. She read several from this sequence, the most striking and indicative of Frost’s work was: “Abandoned bee boxes piled on each other at meadow end…” This short poem reads as:

“Like clothing taken off,
the bees alighted on hat,
gloves, shirt, have flown off somewhere.
Is it so terrible to outlive the mind?
Forget this, forget that—keys, glasses,
what it was you just said, what you meant to say.
Pseudonym. Silence:
oddball or golden or grave, a dance of signs,
sorrows passing by like shadows,
time running by like a small girl running by like a madwoman.”

The piece feels effortless, but it’s clear that Frost pays careful attention to each line, especially in the lines: “Forget this, forget that—keys, glasses, / what it was you just said, what you meant to say.” She separates the tangible and intangible; parallel lines that turn the forgetting inward simply through a line break.

Jeffrey Harrison
Jeffrey Harrison, followed Frost’s performance with several poems from his collection Into Daylight. Harrison’s strength as a writer comes from the straightforward language he uses in his work. The simplicity of his writing allows his emotions to be accessible without being obscured by flourishing linguistic leaps. While that may sound banal, but it isn’t, it never is with Harrison’s work. His greatest trick as a poet is how he changes anecdotes into moments of poignancy and introspection on behalf of both the speaker and the audience. For example, in his poem “Encounter With John Malkovich,” he says:

“…my first thought is I want to tell my brother,
but my brother is dead. And yet I watch him furtively,
searching for some Malkovichian quirk,
some tic that might make Andy laugh,
but he isn’t giving anything away
besides his slightly awkward stoop over the racks.
Then it comes to me that if I can’t tell my brother
about John Malkovich, I can tell John Malkovich
about my brother, and my heart starts pounding.”

In the wrong hands, this narrative could have become over-sentimentalized, but Harrison’s writing has so much control that he avoids doing that. Even so, his poetry finds a way to render the audience unable to avoid feeling some amount of sympathy/empathy for the speaker.

Amaud Jamaul Johnson
Next to read was Amaud Jamaul Johnson who shared work from his books, Red Summer and his newest book, Darktown Follies. Johnson opened by explaining that Darktown Follies was written in response to Black Vaudeville of the early twentieth century and the challenges that those performers faced. In his book, he confronts the intersection between humor and race. As Johnson eruditely said during his reading: “Comedy exposes our cultural moment.”

Johnson’s poem, “Pigmeat,” examines the history of Dewey Markham who was an African-American comedian that performed in blackface. Markham was one of the most popular comedians of his time although many criticized and/or were offended by his use of blackface. In a self-interview prompted by Yona Harvey, Jonhson said: “I wanted to write a series of poems that would place both speaker and reader in that moment of political and emotional ambiguity.” What better figure than to write about the polarizing, Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham.
 An excerpt from the poem:

“Come: these hands, this beat, the broad

Hiccup, a smile. Here, when all the heat
Has been washed & wrung clean from the body

When the men begin to open their leather cases
& hold their monocles a little closer to my heart

& the parable of the homegrown &
The parable of the artificial Negro

Will be told.”

This poem exemplifies Johnson’s taut, sonically pleasing lines and his attention to replicating the historical figure(s) being presented within each poem.

Maggie Smith
 Maggie Smith opened her reading with a poem in her first book, Lamp of the Body, called “Button.” Smith joked that her books were like her children, each demanded a bit of her time so she felt it was important to read from her first books as well. A clever decision, since“Button” is the perfect introduction to Smith’s whimsical style of writing. Here Smith writes:
“Your mother says,
 Button, it’s not the end of the world.
But the weathervane says, Button,

the end is near. It says the sky’s gone
yellow with twisters. Small white stars

are invisible all day, but you hear them
chatter like teeth.”

Smith’s imagery appeals to multiple senses in new, exciting ways; particularly in the lines: “Small white stars/ are invisible all day, but you hear them/ chatter like teeth.” Who would have ever thought to describe the stars that way? Only Maggie Smith.

The fabulist mode of storytelling in “Button” is also found in The Well Speaks of its Own Poison. Latin American fairy tales, well known fairy tales, and even everyday occurrences serve as the inspiration for Smith’s new book. The Well Speaks of its Own Poison is full of imaginative tales of transformation, danger, and wonder. She also replicates the tension found in most fairy tales through a sense of impending danger in many of her poems. An example of these qualities can be found in: “Light, Lemons.”

During the reading Smith explained that “Light, Lemons” was inspired by something her three year old daughter had said, which was: “There were lights in the lemon trees so you could see the lemons, and a whistle so you could call your friends.”
In this poem Smith cleverly transforms a comment by her daughter into the first few lines of her poem and then builds a moment of tension and a backstory to compel the reader to continue reading.
Here are the first seven lines:
“There were lights in the lemon trees
so you could see the lemons.

There were lights in the lemon trees
and a whistle for calling out.

There was a girl among the lit lemons
who blew the whistle and waited

for someone, anyone, to find her.”

The Well Speaks of its Own Poison has many gems like this one that display Smith’s one-of-a-kind whimsy and imagination.

The night concluded with parting words from Paul Romero, the curator of the event. And as always with the motto of Word for Word: “Support the author. Buy the book;” a particularly tempting suggestion after such a strong performance from the poets of Tupelo Press.

Laura Villareal
Laura Villareal  is currently pursuing an MFA at Rutgers University—Newark, where she also teaches Composition. Her work has appeared in Persona Literary Magazine and is forthcoming in Dos Gatos Press’ 2016 Texas Calendar.

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