Showing posts with label word for word poetry blogs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label word for word poetry blogs. Show all posts

Monday, July 28, 2014

Word for Word Poetry Editions with Sibling Rivalry Press (Week of July 28th)

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.

Allen Andre for Word for Word Poetry, July 29, 2014
Featuring the poets of Sibling Rivalry Press

On Tuesday, July 29th, 2014, the Bryant Park Reading Room welcomed a whopping seven poets in an extended showcase for Sibling Rivalry Press. Wendy Chin-Tanner, Saeed Jones, Rickey Laurentiis, Valerie Wetlaufer, Brock Guthrie, Darrel Alejandro Holnes, and Cheryl Boyce-Taylor all appeared to read from their new or forthcoming material. Sibling Rivalry specializes in work from across the LGBTQ spectrum, and this evening's readers presented a smorgasbord of queer viewpoints- in every sense of the word.

Wendy Chin-Tanner
Wendy Chin-Tanner began the reading with her newly released Turn, a “memoir in verse”. Skimming through the volume in a loosely chronological order, she shared pieces of her coming-of-age. Descriptions of vanishing horizons seemed to permeate these poems from the first word. From evocations of the shoreline to an accident in the kitchen while cutting persimmons, small pieces of her seemed to detach and fall away before our eyes.

Minor miracles accompanied these mishaps as she started “tumbling over myself like sea glass”, “my waters quickening, unplanned.” A woman's inner water ran through these poems, carrying erotic charges and new births. Naturally enough, the visibly pregnant Chin-Tanner's voice broke with emotion at these moments, punctuating her restrained reading with moments of emergent life-force and vulnerability

Saeed Jones
Saeed Jones followed, returning to Bryant Park after last month's reading for the Poetry Man tribute. (cf: my post for 6/24/14.) This time, he dived more deeply into his repertoire, dredging up the silt from river bottoms both real and imagined. His first piece, “Anthracite”, was a cry against racism as much as coal extraction: in “strip-mined eyes”, “everything born black burns.” Then he took us on a light-hearted romp through drunken nights of “boot-scootin' boogie” at a gay bar in Nashville, lifting the mood for a spell.

We fell back to Earth to eulogize a youth drowned in the Mississippi, “an animal caught in the sludge”. Then came “Thallium”- a piece named after a cheap cologne- which mixed lust with rage. “You can't sleep here,” Jones says to a paramour. “You won't wake up.” He closed with his darkest (and most moving) piece of all: an elegy for lynching victim James Byrd Jr, who in 1998 was dragged to death behind a pick-up truck in Texas. The poem moves from simple exposition to pure lyric: “death song”, “chain gang”, “work song”. The effect was electric.            
Rickey Laurentiis
Rickey Laurentiis was third. His was a softer, more dreamy take on some of the same themes (of queer identity and racial justice) with involutions modeled after Gothic decadence. It was hard to keep up with his deft turns of phrase and consciousness and I found myself straining to listen rather than taking notes. “Let the whole pageant end,” his first poem demanded, but he seemed to be calling for a transformation of spirit rather than referencing an object. Here was a narrator captive to his own ruthless ontological inquiry.

Nevertheless, Laurentiis' poems stay grounded in specific bodies: exhumation of America's murdered black spirits, a deconstruction of a kiss, a dream about a lynching in Africa. “I saw, I dreamt, two men”- “African, not American”- hung “spine to spine”, victims of an indigenous mob violence rather than imported racism. His poems move freely from past to present and across geopolitical boundaries but always return to pivot points close to home. A statue of a boy in the Met served as such an anchor for his last poem, leaving us with an airy sense of completion.

Valerie Wetlaufer
Valerie Wetlaufer followed with a suite of rapacious Sapphic poems celebrating “crumpled dresses” and “backroom love”. Her fragmentary style includes “bad wives”, wigs and tattoos, and the impact of gender violence. Her words are mixed with the words of others, which seems to be both an aesthetic choice and a battle with internalized abusers. “Tornado Alley”- the title of a poem- stood as a metaphor for the suicidal feelings that often confront queer youth; hers “would have been the 33rd gay suicide that year.”

For me, her most affecting poem was “The Pupil”, an account of her childhood rape at the hands of a teacher. After describing one of the rapes in detail, she remembers a heartbreaking conversation with the teacher years later: “No, I don't remember anything.” Other kinds of exploitation seemed to flow forth from that, including the close presence of invasive male eyes. Wetlaufer concluded with a “Consolation”, or an ambivalent redemption: “You burned my maiden name.” Her bitterness, amazingly, is slowly turning into wisdom.

Brock Gurthrie
Our fifth reader, Brock Guthrie is, as his book title claims, a “Contemplative Man”. And the main subject of his contemplation- done by way of long, chatty prose poems- seems to be male bonding in its crass modern American forms. His first poem, “Animals”, was a litany of his distractions from writing that wound up coming close to real spiritual insight. “The longer you look at something,” his friend Ricky says in the poem, “the more it looks like you.”
 His musings on the joys of extended adolescence had the audience giggling like a stand-up comic. His other poems continued along similar lines. Faith No More blaring from a car stereo was his Pegasus ascending. His last poem, “Once I Get Up This Hill”, was a lazy man's Sisyphus, full of pratfalls and excuses. But Guthrie sees through his own act well enough to move on to bigger and better things. He may well be on his way to a kind of career in post-James Tate red-blooded prose poetry.  

Darrel Alejandro Holnes
Darrel Alejandro Holnes, next up to the mic, shared poems bilingually in Spanish and English to honor his Panamanian origins. His pieces had a highly composed feel in spite of his conversational style. The effect was in large part because of the delivery: his articulation is clear and his voice booms. (I was not surprised to learn later in the evening that he is also a musician and producer.) He began with a campy and high-spirited poem about dressing in drag to impress a lover by appropriating the Prom Queen's tiara.

He then told us the idiosyncratic story of the “Cristo Negro de Porto Velho,” a black Christ figure left by colonial-era Europeans. Christians from around the region undertake a pilgrimage to this Christ “in native disguise”, as his tongue-in-cheek poem puts it. Partially digested religious imagery seeped into a number of poems; “The Down Low Messiahs” lampooned “God's vain process” as it found divinity in sex. His eulogy for Sergio Hernandez- a young Mexican recently killed by U.S. agents for throwing a stone- echoed Jericho. But even with these overtones, Holnes seems to embrace the “Millennial” mindset in which frivolity and significance become hard to distinguish.

Cheryl Boyce Taylor 
After six poets, I was worried I wouldn't be able to process much else. But Cheryl Boyce Taylor, our seventh poet, was easy on the ears. Her rich Trinidadian accent, vivacious stories, and a sensual cornucopia of tropical colors and textures lifted my spirits immediately. “Turkey Basting” was a poem about the time-honored lesbian solution to a “womb dry as whale bone”. Her “Poodles and Sour Cream” was an earthy introduction to class consciousness.
She followed these with reminiscences about her drunken father, striving towards “life after malt liquor” across surfaces of copper, cadmium, porcelain. Taylor's late mother was also re-born right before our eyes as Taylor invoked her mother's voice and Creole grammar. “She little trinket shop” bore a fruit of re-purposed pronouns in a running stream of consciousness. She closed with tender words about Tobago and a gloriously clear-eyed celebration of the “night bloom”.

The lyric play was intoxicating, and a number of assumptions about gender, race, and place had exploded by the end of this mini-marathon. It was an impressive showing by a groundbreaking new publisher. Thank you to the poets, the Sibling Rivalry staff, and everyone at the Bryant Park Reading Room.

Allan Andre is a poet and musician based in Queens. He improvises poetry upon request at a typewriter and plays jazz on multiple instruments. He holds awards and degrees in music and writing. He often holds his girlfriend and their Chihuahua as well. He is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and is currently working on a memoir in verse. His chapbooks include Love Songs for Pedestrians, Mind Breaths, Religious Anarchy, and Traveling By Mirror. His website is

Monday, July 21, 2014

Word for Word Poetry Editions with Kundiman (Week of July 21st)

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.

Safia Jama for Word for Word Poetry, July 22, 2014
Featuring the poets of Kundiman

On Tuesday, July 22nd, the Bryant Park Word for Word Poetry series showcased four Asian American poets, all Kundiman fellows.  Curator Paul Romero hosted the event, which attracted a record audience eager to catch the latest leg of the Honey Badgers Don’t Give a B**k Tour.

Patrick Rosal
Patrick Rosal is an acclaimed poet who also happens to put on a great show.  He got the poetry festivities going with a hip hop-infused call and response poem steeped in the scratchy vinyl of his working class, New Jersey roots.  Reading from a new manuscript, Rosal expressed a wish to reconcile the minutia of daily life with the horror we see on television.  Moreover, how do we explain this disconnect to young children?  In one poem, the speaker struggles to explain a catastrophic earthquake to a child—in a reversal, the child herself becomes the source of wisdom, ordering the grown-ups to “dance”; that play creates a ripple effect: “Even the planet’s axis budged,” the result of “her running man in a borrowed t-shirt.” Rosal, most recently the author of Boneshepherds, manages a combination of humility and bravado in his lucid, syncopated verse. He reflects upon the past with a cinematographer’s eye for detail.  As his poem’s speaker concludes, in the face of horror, “sometimes this is all you can do.”

Cathy Linh Che
Cathy Linh Che quoted the pop singer Feist to describe how she felt on the heels of touring the country and reading from “Split,” her Kundiman Prize-winning debut collection.  “I feel it all,” she said, with a smile.  Che’s book is both painful and cathartic, bearing witness to the public trauma of the Vietnam war and the private trauma of sexual abuse.  Linh, who studied with Sharon Olds, breaks the silence surrounding abuse by weaving the stories of three generations of women—daughter, mother, and grandmother.  The daughter’s half-hidden memories contrast with the sharp precision of each line. In “The German word for dream is traume,” the speaker juxtaposes sexual abuse and the objects of childhood: “I was seven./ The training wheels/ were coming off.”  At the center of the book is the poem “Split,” which portrays the mother, who came of age in Vietnam during the war.  The speaker hints at the threat presented by the American soldiers: “With scissor-fingers,/ they snip the air,/ point at their helmets//and then at her hair.”  The daughter wants to believe in the soldiers’ innocence: they are “just boys.”  Nonetheless, the sinister truth is in plain sight—the girl’s hair is as good as a rabbit foot: “All they want is a small lock—/something for a bit of good luck.”  Che ended her reading with the poem “Burial,” in which the daughter-speaker visits her grandmother’s grave in Vietnam.  Each line forms a kind of hallowed ground: “I bury your hair”; “I bury it all.”  Yet the poem also honors the small acts of those still living: “We lit the joss sticks and planted them./ We kept the encroaching grass at bay.”

Eugenia Leigh 
 Eugenia Leigh read poems from her moving debut collection Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows.  Leigh’s book is replete with vivid characters—from the resilient girl-speaker who battles severe depression; to the violent, incarcerated father, begging his family’s forgiveness; to the caring, if shadowy mother.  Leigh’s speakers capture a child’s hope and rage with great clarity: “I beat the new moon/ with crumpled drawings.”  In “Every Hair on Your Head,” the girl-speaker toys with suicide and does her homework in the same breath.  The result is startling and vulnerable: “I tested five pills.  My stomach barely ached, I ate Ramen, lived, solved/ math problems.” The poem is addressed to a rock musician from the band Sparklehorse, who took his own life.  “Which was the bigger surprise--/the gun punching    or the angel catching you?”  Leigh’s work does not glorify or glamorize depression.  Instead, she weaves back and forth between violence and grace, paying homage to we who “weld our wounds/ to form tools.”

Sally Wen Mao
Sally Wen Mao has a powerful stage presence.  The poems in her debut collection, Mad Honey Symposium, often begin with a word or phrase before zooming down to the molecular level of language to examine misogyny, bias, and beauty.  Mao opened her reading with a poem titled “Yellow Fever,” explaining first, “It’s not about the disease.”  Instead, the poem addresses a man who would objectify women of Asian descent: “I know what you crave. It is larger than me. It is the pretty/ face on the library book—the fallow field.”  Mao’s tone is refreshingly brazen, almost daring the man to objectify her, so that he in turn may be exposed.  Yet the poem isn’t just about the man, it also takes on the Western cannon, history, and novels like Memoirs of a Geisha. Here the woman on the colorful book jacket is talking back: “the woman/ with a comb in her hair, a grin about her like so many/ hives.  It is squalid peonies, murderous silk. It is febrile butterflies// and it is slave.”  Mao’s speakers always push diction into new and risky territory. As she explained to the Bryant Park audience, a number of her poems involve a honey badger, a totem that appears throughout the book that is inspired by a meme that went viral on the Internet.  In “Honey Badger Palinode” the speaker points out the badger’s vulnerability, left out of the Internet meme: “Even the thickest skin is still a membrane.”  Mao closed her reading with exciting new work inspired by the Chinese American actress Anna May Wong, a trailblazing film star whose legacy in Hollywood is framed by slights and triumphs.

The Kundiman reading brought to mind the words of poet Toi Derricotte: “I am not afraid to be memoir.”  Though all four poets take a range of stylistic approaches—from narrative to lyrical to metaphysical—all of their work contributes living, breathing voices to today’s new American poetry.

Safia Jama currently teaches writing and pursues an M.F.A. in poetry at Rutgers-Newark. A Cave Canem fellow and a graduate of Harvard College, her poetry appears in Reverie and The New Sound; her nonfiction appears on NPR's SchoolBook and The Volta.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Word for Word Poetry Editions with The Song Cave Press (Week of July 7th)

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

Safia Jama for Word for Word Poetry, July 8, 2014
Featuring The Song Cave Press

Despite dire weather predictions, the clouds parted and the torrential rains held off long enough for four poets to present new work by a relatively new press, The Song Cave.  The reading showcased verse that is in dialogue with both poetic tradition and gritty process.  

Jane Gregory

Jane Gregory began the evening with poems from her collection My Enemies. Gregory balances emotion and rhetoric in unexpected ways: “This is the sound of a sun on a loop.” Her poems remind us that poems are also science experiments.  For example, Gregory employs the conceit of writing a series of poems titled “Book I Will Not Write,” which in turn makes space for some innovative word-play: “I do not write this / book because I see all the applause is just prayer / undecided.” Gregory’s words shape-shift in mid-line, as the speaker follows taut through-lines through mysterious fields.

Nate Klug

A city park seemed the perfect setting for Nate Klug to read Rough Woods, subtitled “Passages of Virgil’s Eclogues. “ Klug’s aesthetic feels both old and new; he embraces tradition and in doing so, insists on a living poetic tradition.  The passages are peopled by shepherd boys who meet Silenus, drunken mainstay of Greek mythology, singing of “burning planets,” “the earth spinning dry,” when “pine forests started popping up.”  Klug’s translation-poems circle around the yearning for a respite in song from angst and psychoses: “This pastoral life can’t cure my madness.” Klug’s clear language leaves the poems free to grapple with deep concerns.

Todd Colby

Todd Colby read poems from his upcoming collection, Splash State, out in September. Known for his humor and wit, Colby read poems both edgy and vulnerable: “I ran my hand along the back of your leopard”; “I want to do with you what rich people do every Sunday morning.”  His background in music and performance showed in a dramatic-monologue-style reading of “Sweetie,” a poem whose discordant music still sticks in my ear.  As Colby read “Love Poem,” he cracked a smile as the wind blew so hard the poet had to use both hands to keep his papers from drifting away.  

Sarah Nicholson
Sara Nicholson, final reader of the evening, reminded us that a poem is made of up lines, and Nicholson’s lines take surprising turns: “I learned nothing from the woods/ but my social security number.”  Her debut collection, The Living Method, is aware of the context of contemporary poems, which is often an academic context: “the humanities help us stomach our myths.” Nicholson also read a number of new poems—those poems delve into greater emotional vulnerability. In a poem titled “Q & A,” the speaker admits: “I’ve embarrassed myself too often / by sleeping with pronouns.”

Alan Felsenthal

All four poets gave the sense of a nurturing and supportive press of auspicious beginnings.  Word for Word curator Paul Romero noted the enviable youth and talent of the poets, and offered congratulations to co-editors Alan Felsenthal and Ben Estes.

Safia Jama currently teaches writing and pursues an M.F.A. in poetry at Rutgers-Newark. A Cave Canem fellow and a graduate of Harvard College, her poetry appears in Reverie and The New Sound; her nonfiction appears on NPR's SchoolBook and The Volta.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Word for Word Poetry Editions with W.W. Norton and Persea Books (Week of June 30th)

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.

Elizabeth Whittlesey for Word for Word Poetry, July 1, 2014
Featuring the poets of W.W. Norton and Persea Books

Philip Schultz
"To try to imagine someone else's pain using your own as a model is misleading, Ludwig [Wittgenstein] suggests," says the protagonist of Philip Schultz's latest book, The Wherewithal a "novel in verse" which dramatizes the experience and philosophical ponderings of Henryk Stanislaw Wyrzykowski, born in Jedwabne, Poland, a town where the Poles voluntarily slaughtered all of its Jews except for the seven his mother hid in a hole on their farm.  
Most of The Wherewithal 'takes place' in San Francisco in the 60s, however, where Henryk is dodging the draft, working as a welfare clerk, and translating his mother's diaries (the mother, Schultz noted, is based on a real person). The poem continues, "Such a transition isn't practical, or even possible . . . pain isn't a description of a mental state but a signal, or metaphor for for sensation, because, Ludwig says, the real subject of pain is the suffering that gives it expression. Is empathy, therefore, an illusion? Is there no grief but our own? Potentially are we all monsters?"
Although it is clearly an artificial act to select one particular lens through which to view a reading consisting of four unique voices, overarching themes do tend to bubble to the surface—I think it can still be nevertheless a fruitful way to consider a particular collection of anything.  The subject of empathy—interest in the experience of the other—called out loudly in all four of the evening’s readers’ work. I am most-certainly not the first to wonder whether a capacity for empathy isn’t requisite for the writing of all great works of fiction and poetry. Perhaps the poetic impulse can often be reduced to "I'm suffering, are you suffering too?” Or "I witness others' suffering." (Or: “I witness beauty, love, or happiness.”— Life isn’t all suffering, now, is it?)  
Is empathy, an illusion? I personally don’t think it is, but I'm no Wittgenstein either. “Poetry is a satisfying of the desire for resemblance,” said Stevens. Don’t our most wonderfully mystical poets like Whitman remind us of the likeness in all things, that we are all everything, anyway?  Can the individual, as microcosm of the Whole, suffer without the Whole suffering too?  I don’t think so.  Perhaps the experience of empathy is simply the act of acknowledging this. (Ommmm.) 
With uncanny timing, just as Schultz uttered the lines, "I'm now employed by lugging a cargo of dissolute souls from one hostile shore to another for no reason other than to sustain myself to the next paycheck," an ambulance raced past blasting its sirens. "You all hear that right?" Schultz interrupted, "I wanted to make sure it wasn't just me. I hear that all the time—they're coming to get me."

Charlie Smith
Charlie Smith’s work belies a keen interest in other voices and experience, which should come as no surprise since he is also an accomplished novelist. In one of Smith’s poems an immigrant father "slaps and slaps his daughter, overwhelmed by their lives.” Smith (or the speaker) presents the harsh facts unflinchingly, but he isn't judgmental about it, rather he chooses to try and guess at—sympathize with—the psychology behind the cruelty.
Introducing some selections from Heroin and other Poems, Smith prefaced with the caveat: "People always think my poems are autobiographical, but they're not. I've never found my own biography that interesting." This statement opens up a whole other can of worms, in my opinion. Readers often assume a close connection if not equivalence between the 'I' of a poem and the poet. I, for one, do it all the time, and I don’t feel all that apologetic about it.  Should I?  Yeah, yeah, I know: the ‘I’ of a poem is a performance—a fiction; there’s never just one ‘I’; there’s no one ‘self’—but I’ll be damned if I don’t believe there isn’t a close connection to the actual biography, if it isn’t often in fact the poet him or herself.  I’m old fashioned like that. 
Does it constitute betrayal—break some unwritten code between poet and audience if a poet presents extreme experience like addiction or rape in the first person, with a voice that seems to be speaking from a place of actual experience, but isn’t?  I'm not going to answer that. The beauty of this being a blog and not an academic paper, is that I can simply pose the question and then go on my merry way, leaving the rest of you to come to conclusions, make grand pronouncements, trouble the internet waters all on your own.
"Any thought of another is godlike, is grace,” declares another of Smith’s poems. (By the way, it was rather delightful to hear Smith’s poems spoken in his own charming Southern lilt, sprinkled with amusing, mildly self-effacing remarks such as “so if I just keep going and I just keep goin’ and goin’, someone please come and knock me to the side” or, “This book goes on and on like that, poem after poem.”) 
I felt the sting of my own laziness when Smith remarked, "I try to write a new poem every day, so I don't get worn out reading the old ones." Then he dropped the astonishing “Bontemps,” which stunned me with its galactic, all-encompassing reach. I think it was the surprising return to everyday human life at the end, preceded by the vastness and impersonality of creation, that I found most poignant:

Figure you could spend a thousand years
studying one speck of butterfly dust, then go on
to the next and then ten thousand on the water drop the speck floats in . . .
spend ten milleniums tracing it back to the source which of course is a sumptuous
spangolem in itself and includes the burning gases just now passing
Jupiter’s third moon . . . and wait your turn with the five billion others who have themselves spent eternity doing exactly the same
thing, at a slightly different place, and while you are waiting
under the one trillion billion stars upon which
the molecules—worlds aspin—all quake, each with its own separate
and sonorous rhythm, each awaiting its turn at the mike,
each impatient, put upon, outraged, desperate . . .
and while you are waiting think how one
moment of time is enough in which to understand everything . . .
and then turn back and start over because you remember a miscalculation
somewhere in the third era to the left of the beginning,
and do this several times, all the time maintaining
your place in line, and then you realize it’s been going on like this
for years, like somebody’s idea of the good life,
or the way each night the cooks and the busboys gather
on DeLawter’s back steps and smoke and tell stories
passing a bottle around, eating crab legs, and summer never ends.
I imagine giving birth to or parenting a child provides one of the most intense experiments in empathy, in slippage between self and other. Suddenly you have charge over a being you brought into existence who is composed of half your genetic material, half the material of your partner (in the typical scenario.) You witness your own child-self growing up again through your child; you witness your partner’s childhood; you witness the new creature’s experience. You attempt to relate appropriately towards—get inside the mind of—the two-year-old: if you only you could feel so much wonder about objects again, the joy of taking them off shelves, putting them in containers; if only you could feel the same unadulterated infant delight in rattle-sound….  

Sarah Gambito        
After remarking with her characteristically intense-yet-cheerful voice, “I think it’s always been a dream of mine to read in a place under trees like this, with a breeze like this, with poets like this,” Sarah Gambito commenced with a poem about her son: “I have a son who’s three, and it totally changed my life. I felt blind in my life, or maybe I was seeing my life for the first time.”The poem’s title, “Hapa,”means half-Asian.  Gambito is of Filipino descent; she moved here from the Philippines as a young child, if I have gathered correctly from making that crude leap from the ‘I’ of her poems to Gambito herself (gasp!):

I said, who would be dunked
into that code of a polypeptide or RNA chain
like a pearl without eyes
like a son with blue eyes
pushing the soul through bicycle spokes
it spoke with a vibrato
that embarrassed me
a function in the organism
orangutan nanny in the garage . . .
your child who I choose
to love like a dreadnought
a sailor with braids on his body
lonely for us both

Although Gambito frequently explores ‘otherness’ in terms of immigrant experience and identity in her work, the theme of parenting stood out most-prominently for me this reading (although Gambito’s child being bi-racial probably engages in those themes by default anyway.)

The penultimate poem she shared was written, or at least finished, that day. I always find it courageous when poets share such fresh work. Then again, such an act places Gambito in good company. I’ve always loved the anecdote about Frank O’Hara scribbling the classic “Lana Turner” on the Staten Island Ferry a few minutes before arriving to read one evening, much to Robert Lowell’s chagrin. 

She prefaced by saying, “I’ve wanted to try and write a mother poem, but it’s really hard, I’m till so staggered by the whole thing…I just can’t believe it.”  It contained as surprising and fresh imagery as I’ve come to expect from Gambito’s work.  (I transcribe):

I want to carve an image of a mother like a pearl into a chicken nugget. I’ll peel the natal paper away from a baby, the island crocus, the wary gorilla, all those muscles just from eating berries. I can barely handle all the dials and switches on myself, what more on the bright-eyed chick-eating             creature that says mother. . .  I hunt my mother like a mother, like a rusty scuba gear, a jazzy assemblage of roast potatoes, clumps of protein and sugar. Basically my wish is that you never, ever are pierced through the heart. My aim is ordinary, my anthem open, my berries crying together in   pie.

Laura Cronk
I was unfamiliar with Laura Cronk’s poems before this reading, and I was really quite taken by all of them. Her poems set in Jersey City, where she now lives, dealt head-on with problems of empathy, otherness. I felt a sense of relief when she remarked, “I was trying to write an essay about Jersey City, and prose is really hard, and so I’m trying to turn it into a poem.” (I hear ya, sister!) She didn’t mention the title of this one, but it captures the experience of walking around in an urban setting—especially as a female— so well that I had to share it:

Who called out to me when my pace slowed? “Skank,” the voice said . . .
            The thing is I’m a thing walking, another nothing, can to be crushed, bone to be chewed. . . a swirl of trash, I’m dodging it, a gust of nasty wind, now you’re about to be even more remote . . .
Look at me, complete bitch, with nowhere to go. . . .  My people wear sneakers while they hunt and fish, short perms, cuntish, so I shouldn’t say that something is wrong with you because you grew up in an asshole place. Together we made our way here, where the neighbor’s noise drives you deeply inside.

Towards the end of the poem, in a remarkable merging between self and other, the speaker seems to become the voice who has just called her skank:
            Or wait, am I the man? I am, asking the price, setting the time? He moistens his lips in the street light and waits . . . Every tank top is frayed and too tight, summer too deep to come out of, every thought overripe. I will use the two more years of youth I have, spendthrift, waste them, trash them.

I loved the frankness and audacity of Cronk’s poem, “What to Eat,” a humorous send-up of our cultural obsession with thinness:

The way to be a powerful fifty-year old woman is not to eat. The way to be a powerful forty-year-old woman is to order sparkling water. The way to be a powerful forty-five-year-old woman is to cross your arms and stand back when the birthday cake is passed. To be incredibly powerful at twenty:   don’t eat. At thirty: it helps not to eat. At sixty, you can be incredibly powerful not eating. To be powerful and artistic and a man, it is also good not to eat.  I can see the wonderful things that would happen for me if I would also not eat, just like my sister. She locked herself in her room and stayed there for months. She had her baby, gave it away, she ate only boiled chicken and apples . . . emerged with just enough suffering legible on her face to make her truly beautiful.

Cronk closed with “Ancestry,” which ties into my chosen theme of empathy rather perfectly, wraps everything up all nice together for me with a  big ‘ole bow. She wrote the piece out of an experience I’m sure all of us city-dwellers can relate to:
            “I’m normally a pretty nice person, but there was a moment during the polar vortex when I was trying to take my daughter and two neighbor kids to the bus that I just lost it. There was a tantrum happening and it was almost like someone was speaking through me, that some kind of crazy ancestor…the words coming out of my mouth weren't mine, and I didn't know where they came from. So this poem is kind of about the experience of being inhabited”:

I never know who is looking out from my eyes, sadistic German Catholic or silent Appalachian clockmaker. The sky is so blue today as I drag the neighbor boy to the bus, the onion farmer in me against the army vet in him. There’s the army vet in me too. He gets things done, like taking my laughter and neighbor boy to the bus . . . 

There’s the one who war furs and Shalimar, and the dairy farmers, there’s the poet who had séances and the dead who talked to everyone but her. . . There are the wild game hunters, the banjo pickers, the football coach. The general manager of the factory and the factory lineman are both here as I look into the mirror and pin my hair and put on earrings. There’s the hairdresser and the twins, the painter who stopped painting when her sister died, the other painter who only painted strange things, eyes peaking out from a forest of deformed trees.
I put on my coat, say goodbye to my son. The onion farmer’s vicious wife is putting on my gloves.  There are the hockey players, but they’re not helping me now—it’s so cold, this cold might break me . . . Now I’m inhabited by a whole group of the good-for-nothing ones with their sidelong looks and wispy hair who never made their mark or never had a trade. Every day we leave together, they walk me to the train.

When you stop and think for a moment about the multitudes we all contain in our DNA, all tracing back and connecting us to those first two; when you consider how many pairs of eyes are looking out through your own as you peer out into how many other pairs… Maybe indeed we go to poetry in search of resemblance—for a reminder, via metaphor and simile, of the connectedness between all things, or to feel a sense of recognition in like experience or emotion—what some might call empathy.

Elizabeth Whittlesey's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston ReviewGulf CoastjubilatWestern Humanities ReviewPOOL: A Journal of Poetry, Jerry, Two Serious Ladies, Explosion Proof, Phantom Limb, andNoncanon Press. Elizabeth grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah and lives in Manhattan.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Word for Word Poetry: A Tribute to Paul Romero (Week of June 23rd)

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.

Allan Andre for Word for Word Poetry, June 24, 2014
A Tribute to Paul Romero 

Paul Romero
 On June 24, 2014, the Bryant Park Reading Room hosted a truly unique performance: a tribute to its own Paul Romero. One of his many duties as Director of Tourism & Visitor Services is to serve as the organizer of the Word for Word series. He has been at the helm since its inception in 2003, and in those eleven years has gotten to know many poets around the city. In certain circles, he has earned himself the title of Poetry Man. This evening, a heaping handful of poets- along with his regular staff- showed up to sing his praises.

Natalie Douglas
The night began with the staff gathering around the mic to do a group reading of an original rhyming introduction. Then jazz singer Natalie Douglas and guitarist Chris Biesterfeldt played a rendition of the 1974 hit “Poetry Man”, perhaps the source of Romero's nickname. While the conventionally flirty verses didn't all suit Paul, the cheery refrain did; he has a natural gift for making everyone feel welcome. In the process of facilitating these readings, he has created a small community around himself, a fact celebrated by various speakers throughout the evening.

Chris Biesterfeldt
Our charismatic M.C. was Michael Broder, a regular at the Reading Room who was sitting in for his husband Jason Schneiderman. While Schneiderman couldn't appear in person due to strep, he wrote a heartwarming letter which Broder read. He also read one of Schneiderman's poems, a witty

Michael Broder
and refreshing take on evolution's hiccups. Then Broder read his own original translation of the Roman poet Catullus. The poem (known only by number due to its ancient provenance) was the poet's apology to his boyfriend Juventius for stealing a kiss. Broder's translation read smoothly in spite of his stream-of-consciousness confession that he'd edited it just for this reading. The audience, Romero included, seemed very pleased.

Jason Schneiderman
Next up was Saeed Jones reading a dark and wistful poem taking place across multiple lifetimes. The speaker's “post-apocalyptic heartbeat” kept pulsing across each scene as they fragmented into different times and places. Jones' oracular piece made the atmosphere heavier, and the crowd was mostly quiet as AngeloNikolopoulos stepped up to the mic.
Saeed Jones
Nikolopoulos echoed an appreciation for Romero, who had helped him feel less like “a nobody” when he first came to the Reading Room. Then he stepped into a poem based on Elizabeth Bishop's famous “In The Waiting Room”. Like Bishop, Nikolopoulos took us from “benign beginnings” to something much more surreal, ending up in a natural “strobe light”.
Angelo Nikolopoulos
PatriciaSpears Jones, who had just put on a Bryant Park reading the previous Thursday, re-appeared to read from her book Painkiller at Romero's request. Her first poem was a very clever follow-up to Broder's Catullus, again referencing the Roman poet in order to tell us “what the first cities were all about”. Then she moved into the world of a Cuban Bolero dance in sensual gyrations of language leading up to an “accidental lovemaking”.
Patricia Spears Jones

 “Intelligence seems less popular,” Michael Klein seemed to respond in the next poem. “There's no money in it.” His “Harmonium” was a very funny queer list poem railing against the idea of “queer”, and against lists, and finally against itself. The whimsical turns of his uniquely brash speaking voice were like cold water in the face after Jones' reverie.

Mark Doty
Mark Doty was next to read; he was effusive about Romero, Bryant Park, and New York in general. Echoing Ginsberg by way of Klein, he began by noting that resources like the Reading Room “are here because somebody puts their shoulder to the wheel. And Paul is doing that.” His first poem, “Spent”, was a meditation on the boundary between indoors and out focused on a scattered bunch of hydrangeas. His next poem elaborated on how simple routines- in this case, getting a haircut- keep New Yorkers grounded amidst the chaos of the city.

Broder finished out the reading with some brief missives from
absentee poets, namely Molly Peacock and Jim Nason. Apparently Romero once gave his handkerchief to the latter, a visiting Canadian poet. And of course, when one shows kindness to poets, it often winds up getting published. Nason's was a short, tender piece about his reading in Bryant Park. While the physical handkerchief is gone, the poem was a heartfelt gift in return.

Michael Klein
After a reprise of “Poetry Man” by Douglas and Biesterfeldt and a few more words from the staff, Romero himself closed the evening. Rather than speaking his own thanks, Romero pulled out a copy of Kenneth Koch's long poem “Bel Canto”. He felt that the last stanza summed up all he wanted to say in that moment. In that spirit, perhaps I can do no better than to quote it here:

“The warmth you've shown in giving me a temperature
That I can live with, and the strength you've shared with me
In arms and legs—and for your part in literature,
What can I say? It is as if life stared at me
And kissed my lips and left it as a signature.
Thank you for that, and thank you for preparing me
For love itself, and friendship, its co-agent.
Thank you for being this, and for its inspiration.”

Allan Andre is a poet and musician based in Queens. He improvises poetry upon request at a typewriter and plays jazz on multiple instruments. He holds awards and degrees in music and writing. He often holds his girlfriend and their Chihuahua as well. He is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and is currently working on a memoir in verse. His chapbooks include Love Songs for Pedestrians, Mind Breaths, Religious Anarchy, and Traveling By Mirror. His website is

Monday, June 9, 2014

Word for Word Poetry Editions with Letras Latinas (Week of June 9th)

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.

Allen Andre for Word for Word Poetry, June 10, 2014
Featuring the poets of Letras Latinas

On Tuesday, June 10th, the Byrant Park Reading Room welcomed four poets representing Letras Latinas, a Latino-American writers' organization at The University of Notre Dame. Francisco Aragon of Letras Latinas and Bryant Park impresario Paul Romero brought together a roster of poets from around the country with deep ties to the Spanish-speaking world. Barbara Brinson Curiel, Carmen Calataud, David Tomas Martinez, and Pablo Miguel Martinez put on a rich and engaging reading with plenty of bilingual and cross-cultural wordplay thrown in.

Barbara Brinson Curiel
Barbara Brinson Curiel began the evening with tales and allegories drawn from a full life in Northern California. Her first poem, “My Father Comes Home from Work”, describes a sweating, grunting Chicano patriarch stomping in after his shift at a Bay Area slaughterhouse. The women and children in the household, Curiel among them, are made to focus exclusively on his gestures and desires. In revisiting the memory, Curiel expands her child's point of view to incorporate adult detachment and an abundance of sensual information- the Formica table, shirts being starched, the tenor of the family's silence.

Not surprisingly, experiences like these helped lead Curiel to feminism. Her second poem was a whimsical re-working of the Red Riding Hood tale, with a newly empowered Grandma as the heroine. (The old woman fights off the wolf herself with the absentee woodcutter's axe, then offers it to the young girl.) The third poem was another feminist fable of sorts and the centerpiece of her new book. It's a long narrative about “Mexican Jenny”, a real-life sex worker in pioneer Colorado. Curiel researched this notorious Southwestern figure at length and invented stories to fill the many gaps in the historical record, creating three alternate endings- and even alternate beginnings, such as a fantasized childhood in Acapulco, Mexico. This sympathetic reconstruction is also woven together with a variety of textures and physical sensations, including Jenny's breathless escape into the night with only a stolen silk shawl for protection.
Most moving of all for me were Curiel's tender remembrances of her early adulthood, long days of exhilarating freedom roving across sprawling suburban landscapes and foggy fields. One poem took the form of an improvised recipe for tamales. While Curiel didn't pick up her mother's recipe, she did “inherit her capacity for invention,” and scours her small town for the right kind of corn meal. Eventually she feels empowered to make all kinds of daring dishes. Curiel's last poem recounted a romp in the corn fields outside Stockton, California- another indelible moment in the glow of a shooting star.
Carmen Calatayud
Then came Carmen Calatayud, a woman whose focused passion and sharp, hungry eyes make her slight frame seem bigger than it is. Small blue-green stones around her neck and fingers seemed to soak up the streetlights while she absorbed her surroundings in a single glance. “Can I get a little political?” she asked with a wan smile, and the audience tittered. That gentle sarcasm quickly opened up into full-throated declamatory poems railing against injustice.
The first one was written in response to Arizona's Orwellian SB1070 law, which legalizes racial profiling. She spoke in detail of the gruesome deaths of migrant women in the Sonora desert as a direct result. Her second poem was in a similar vein, describing the voice of a homeless woman in Washington, D.C., Caltayud's current hometown. I wasn't sure how much of this woman was invented and how much was recorded, but her stark story and bitter tone rang true for me. “Dawn is worse than the night,” her lapidary words went, reminding us that home is more than a place to sleep.
Calatayud's pithy writing became more personal with “What Matters: A Life in Five Parts”- five short poems to encapsulate her five decades on Earth. In quick succession I heard her attention move from pleasure to mortality, from aesthetics to philosophy, and finally to acceptance or appreciation. It was a magnificent- if somewhat abstruse- attempt to describe the process of spiritual maturation, how consciousness shifts and priorities change.
Then the personal blended with the political again, as she described her Spanish father recalling that country's Civil War. Calatayud and her father process this psycho-emotional quagmire with heady metaphors of anarchy traveling through DNA strands before surrendering to shared rage and grief. “How are Franco and George Wallace still alive?” she asked incredulously. (I suppose this poem takes place before Franco's death in 1975.) After an aside about the Mayan Calendar, she closed with a deeply reverent reading of Joy Harjo's incandescent “Fire”.

David Tomas Martinez
David Tomas Martinez was a strikingly different physical presence at the mic, practically pouncing on his audience with few preliminaries. He is tall man with a broad chest, tattooed over much of his visible skin. His voice is a honeyed baritone with an intriguing mix of muscular guile and effeminate inflections. The poems themselves were dense jungles of similes delivered in a mesmerizing rant, perhaps a holdover from a fast-talking adolescence on violent San Diego streets. “It's still hard to believe that anyone would actually want to listen to me,” he mused half to himself during his recitation.
His brilliant new book is an extended meditation on machismo. “Memory is a fist to the eye,” his first poem claimed, wrestling a number of ethereal themes down to earth. His second poem envisioned his father as a “caged jaguar”, stuck in the cramped spaces of received male identity. These were stirring reminders that those who dream of domination are usually are the most powerless.
I would call his poem “The Mechanics of Men” a Chicano street tough's answer to the late Seamus Heaney's “Digging”- a classic account of the poet's defection from male lineages of work. In this case, though, the role models are morally questionable and the local economy has shallower roots, leading to a more extended narrative quest. The poem describes Martinez's stint in a shipyard as a “job to babysit [him]”. The materials themselves (hoses, brass fittings, etc.) serve as little more than metaphors to get to something better, in this case a feminist education.
 The next poem told a gripping story from Martinez' reckless teenage years about hotwiring a car to commit a murder; fortunately, it all goes wrong. “No murder for you tonight,” says a goofily personified Christian God, just a plate of papas fritas at home. The closing poems were similarly harrowing: blocking a door to stop a rape, fractured hipbones. I for one am deeply thankful that Martinez managed to escape this collective madness and emerge into truer forms of self-expression, and I look forward to his future work.
Pablo Miguel Martinez
The slack jaws in the crowd moved back into place as the cautious and soft-spoken Pablo Miguel Martinez took the mic. This gentle figure spent most of his time on short, solemn meditations. The dominant themes were “brown ghosts” “brown faces”, and “brown skin”- superficial differences reified into snap judgments and discrimination. He is a teacherly poet enamored of his family's history and the broader history of Latin Americans, using his memories and fantasies to create accessible portraits of their social worlds.
Towards this end, he steadily worked backwards and forwards in time. After reading a fantasized “telegram”, he moved forward into a lyrical portrait of his father's funeral. Then back to an earlier memory of his father and uncle applying for work as printers. Although they had come together in response to an announcement of two open positions, they were met with disdain. “I cain't have two Pedros,” Martinez read in a perfect Texas twang, imitating the white employer. “I don't want no trouble.” Martinez captures the terrible ache of this moment with an admixture of verbatim recall and his own laconic observations.
Next we were transported to present-day Napa Valley where, Martinez told us, Mexican and Filipino migrant workers can be seen everywhere... except in town. He imagined them in tangled “labyrinths of lettuce, beet and grapes”, unable to reach for much else. Casting his eye further back into time, he then read an epistolary poem to Malinche, an Aztec woman who famously served as translator for the brutal conquistador Cortes. Once again Martinez captured the moment with the simplest of imagery, depicting a woman spiritually possessed by the “red-bearded language”. He closed with an ekphrastic poem inspired by a Brazilian photographer, a “fractured sonnet”, and a charmingly ham-fisted invocation of the Padrinos and Madrinos of Latin music. It was a litany modeled after Mexican Catholic recitation of the names of saints, equal parts parody and homage. It was a the perfect ending to a very charged evening; I think we were all in need of something light-hearted after so much injustice, so many painful comings-of-age.
Whatever else may be said of these poets, they are documenting an essential part of the modern (and future) American psyche. We are only beginning to appreciate the momentous clash of Anglo and Latin cultures on our soil, a collision that is creating new peaks and valleys in our literature. Broad-minded organizations in the American heartland like Letras Latinas provide much-needed inspiration in a political environment rife with repression and isolationism. Thank you to all the readers and organizers. I am very glad that poets such as these are finding their voices in English and I hope that we can hear them afresh in polyglot New York.

Allan Andre is a poet and musician based in Queens. He improvises poetry upon request at a typewriter and plays jazz on multiple instruments. He holds awards and degrees in music and writing. He often holds his girlfriend and their Chihuahua as well. He is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and is currently working on a memoir in verse. His chapbooks include Love Songs for Pedestrians, Mind Breaths, Religious Anarchy, and Traveling By Mirror. His website is