Joshua Kleinberg for Word for Word Poetry, September 8, 2015
With its storied bustle, New York is a place where routines can be difficult to stick to, but one of this summer’s simpler pleasures for me has been sitting down in the Reading Room on Tuesdays at 7 and noting how, each week, the daylight had dimmed a little from the week before. On September 8th, twilight had begun to set in over the park by the start of the Word for Word event, a reading in conjunction with the Belladonna* collective. In the distance, landscaping teams reached from nerve-wrackingly high cherry-picker buckets to prune trees, the starts and growls of their machines adding a not-unpleasant sonic texture to the evening.
The unpredictability of the public square is part of what makes Word for Word such a singular poetry experience. Each week, the light changes, the wind shifts, and in the background—as it always is in the city—life is going on. To hear poetry in a dynamic atmosphere reminds us that it is not always a staid art to be impounded in stone halls but a more organic force, bleeding out into the world, even beyond those who hear it.
Belladonna*, then, makes perfect sense as a partner with Word for Word. They prioritize poetry that is “resonant and interventionist, ” promoting the “work of women writers who are adventurous, experimental, politically involved, multi-form, multicultural, multi-gendered, impossible to define, delicious to talk about, unpredictable and dangerous with language.”
Part-press, part-reading series, part-social outreach program and discourse incubator: if it sounds like Belladonna* is a little hard to pin down, that’s by design. As a matter of mission, the collective is organized “unconventionally and unpredictably,” a model based not on publishing industry standards—frequently criticized as hegemonic and (thus) conservative—but on a more anarchic French Feminist ethic, “allowing for creativity to take leaps and meander.” The work they publish “reaches across the boundaries and binaries of literary genre and artistic fields, and … questions the gender binary." And though historically underrepresented, these are concerns that have resonated with readers and critics alike: Latasha Nevada Diggs, who organized the evening and introduced the readers, spent four months on the SPD Poetry bestseller list for her 2013 collection TwERK and r. erica doyle’s book proxy (2013) was the recipient of the 2014 Norma Farber first book award from the Poetry Society of America.
|r. erica doyle|
In “Until,” doyle offers an unusual take on the gentrification of New York’s “old neighborhoods” by singling out characters who might be considered outliers. The first, in the pre-gentrification days, is “a skinny white lady of indeterminate ancestry with an underbite and a cigarette in her right hand.” Organizing trash, berating family members past thin walls, mumbling beneath her breath as she passes neighbors of color, this character has a fraught relationship with the community. Her children “may or may not be bigger than her. They may or may not be wholly or partially white, indicating some sort of dalliance with boundaries she seems loathe to cross at least socially now,” but for keeping her building and its environs tidy, she earns a begrudging respect from the neighbors, “until the buildings are all filled with white people who have money to spend at cafes and wine bars.” Once the neighborhood has been developed and the moneyed have moved in, there is a new outlier: “a black man who dresses in a big camel hair coat, hat with ear flaps and tattered leather gloves, who paces the street, speaking to no one in particular in a language no one in the neighborhood understands.”
A visual artist with a degree in Digital Media from RISD, the work of the night’s second reader, Monica Ong, frequently employs graphic elements, taking place on the page atop diagrams or alongside found images. Her poem “Bo Suerte” takes a deep look at a family portrait, included in her collection Silent Anatomies (2015), in which the speaker’s mother stands as a child for a family portrait with the dubious distinction of being dressed as a boy in order to balance the daughter-son ratio. “I easily identify all four of your sisters in their von Trapp dresses, and both brothers, sporting crisp white linens. In your absence stands a son, slightly leaning, toes ablister from your brother’s too big shoes // You tell me Grandfather was ashamed,” she read, and in the measured restraint of her voice, you felt the political slide into the doleful personal. “The fact of five daughters was the immutable kind.”
In “Medica Visits the Witch Doctor,” Ong overlays a poem inspired by health studies “that claimed that Asian-Americans were more likely than Westerners to express emotional distress through physical symptoms” onto an acupuncture chart. Growing up as the daughter of a physician led Ong to a fascination with “medical ephemera” and gave her a keen interest in the way that narratives are kept “hidden in the body.” The titular witch doctor, mingling the mystical with the medical, advises that the listener “begin with the thumbs below the cheekbones. / This will clear the sinuses of guilty pleasures: / espresso grinds that feed the cankers / gossip masked by orange peels.” Even without the visual aid of the page’s acupuncture diagram, there is an expansive visual element here. One pictures an afternoon of idle gossip at the kitchen table as an orange rind is gradually piled atop a napkin.
Later on, in “Failsafe,” Fagin wended through a series of tenuously linked states: philosophical orientations, defense mechanisms, glitched-out nature scenes and descriptive phrases rejiggered into nouns. “Over-appreciation detection / butterfly threat / sharply-felt restraint of imposition / rivers astonished … implicit acceptance of viciousness / it’s mine all mine / dusty but not dualistic.” Fagin’s steady reading voice implied bullet-points out front of these wholly contained phrases, corralling them as they pulsed out toward each other, threatening to run amok.
|Tonya M. Foster|
“Cornbread / Courtyard / Cousins / CPT / Crawfish / Creole / Dark-skinned / Dark-skinned daughters / Dead End / Desire / Desire Projects / Desire unmet is desire multiplied.”
Foster has an incredible talent for teasing language into new configurations that strip away our usual interpretations of daily events. In “A Grammar of Waking” she opens with a sentient sun—“first light commands a dreaming eye open.” Later, “on St. Nick pavement / a deafmute draws his arm over his head” and “ashy skin” is “offered against the light.” In the park, the only light that still shone came from tower windows, streams of moving traffic and lamps bound with metal fasteners to the trees. The days had begun to shrink, but the night was aglow with poetry.
JOSHUA KLEINBERG is an MFA candidate at Columbia University. His poetry was the recipient of the Arthur Rense Prize from the Academy of American Poets and has appeared in Chorus: A Literary Mixtape (2012, MTV Books) and New Poetry from the Midwest (2015, New American).