Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Word for Word Poetry Blogs

We've tapped some very special guest bloggers to help us celebrate this summer's Word for Word Poetry series at Bryant Park. They provide a behind-the-scenes look at each event and divulge about the talented poets who share their work in the park. Experience Word for Word Poetry yourself every Tuesday through September 14, from 7pm to 8:30pm, at the Bryant Park Reading Room. 

Anne Lovering Rounds on Word for Word Poetry, August 10

The three poets in the park’s Word for Word reading last Tuesday night were poets of shape-shifting.  As the evening unfolded, we heard poems speak English and speak Spanish, inhabit memory and confront the present, and move from the real to the surreal and back again.

Brenda Cárdenas, poet laureate of Milwaukee and author of the collection Boomerang, opened the reading with a travel poem, “On the Coast in Pedasi.” What began as evocative recollection turned into a meditation on migration as the poet observed a cloud of bees “swarm the plaza”: “Watch your step,” the poem told us, underscoring Cárdenas’s own keen powers of observation. “Someone,” inspired by a photo she had seen on the Lac du Flambeau Reservation in Wisconsin, addressed with terse grace the exchanges implicit in photography. Through subtle wordplay— the photographer “like the poet” with “no reservation,”  “nothing to trade / in upturned hands,” the subject who “will give the camera / his best shot”—this poem opened up the multiple, rich, and perturbing transactions of the portrait. Cárdenas has a wonderful ability to balance the contemplative with exuberant, acrobatic language. In “That Beehive ’Do,” she rhapsodized the hairstyle she had worn for a London performance piece (“That beehive ’do / B-52 / bombshell”), and in “Poema para lost tin-tun-teros,” an homage to drummers, Cárdenas let onomatopoeia work its own magic, without translation. The reminiscence “Me and My Cuz” easily wove together multiple voices into its own music, from “Santana blaring from the Bose” to allusions to an uncle’s advice to teenage tough chicks (“…escúchame bien, / don’t you ever let me catch you / take your change off the bar”). On both stage and page, Cárdenas’s voice is compelling for the way it is inclusive and effortless.

John Murillo is a suspense expert. To hear his poems is to know who is in control. It’s not you. Murillo may deliver release, as in “Salsa Lesson,” a new piece he read, a litany of imperatives, “Say silk dress,” “Say wind,” “Say wind,” and finally, “Say tonight you learn that grace / is the art of letting go” [lineation inferred]. Or he may not, as in “Happiness,” a poem that ended with a bittersweet transcription of a phone call between a boy and a girl: “You hang up first. No. You.” In poems from his new book, Up Jump the Boogie, Murillo allowed us into family moments both amusing (“the week I changed my name / To Juanito X”) and painful. “Dream Fragment with a Shot Clock and Whistles In It,” an elegy for his father, elegantly blended the personal, the idiom of father-son conversation — “…daddy did you hear / the Lakers got Shaquille / think this’ll be our season”—into the universally hard truth of mortality. “Can’t see the clock / but I know it’s there / It ain’t no more seasons…” Murillo’s poems were candid without overflowing into the confessional; they are, even as they curse or command or grieve, supremely measured. Murillo concluded his part of the night with “Song”—a love song to New York, he noted. It began with the I-do-this, the ordinary (“I know it’s wrong to stare, but it’s Tuesday, / The express is going local”), developed and repeated a preacherly refrain (“And I say, praise it all”; “Praise it all.” “Praise the knowledge. Praise / The opening and closing doors”), and ended with pure glory: “I let in this city, let out this sweat, / And come to own this mighty, mighty joy.” There are a lot of subway poems out there, and this is one of the most beautiful ones I’ve ever heard.

“You’re a legend,” Paul Romero said to Willie Perdomo, the final reader. In fact, John Murillo’s book says as much in its acknowledgments: “Willie, yours is the voice that brought me to poetry in the first place. So I’m honored to be riding with you. For real.” Perdomo began with a lightning bolt of a poem, which he later called a “throat-clearing exercise”, whose energy was built of monosyllables: “Bloom, blau”; “Black cat” “Get this” [lines breaks and spellings inferred]. Perdomo continued reading from a work in progress, Emergency Money. The poems were sound swirls; details (like the Number 2 train, a storefront, an intersection) surfaced from pleasingly abstract textures. “If you do / you ain’t / If you don’t / You are.” Perdomo closed with the epistle “Dear Magda,” a hypnotic mixture of dream narration, heartbreak poem (“Chandelier to the floor, mi amor”; “It wrecks me to think about the way we used to kiss”), and—what to call it? “The scenario changes to quick for me to adjust,” as its speaker said. But Perdomo’s poems don’t ask their listeners to adjust. Their ebb and flow, vivid landscapes, and quick wit just reel you in and make you want to hear it again when it’s over. 

In a conversation that sprung up after the reading, somebody else, not one of the readers, opined that New York was becoming a Disneyworld: that Manhattan has become a parody of itself, a gentrified, homogenized playground mostly reserved for the very rich. It’s not a new critique: let’s not forget that The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s fat satire cum offensive caricature of the city, made the same point when it came out in the 1980s, the decade whose pain, perceived as authenticity, everybody seems to be yearning for now. But I’m not going to write about that. Because whatever your perspective on what New York means now, whatever your (native) language or your neighborhood, in the space that these poems made, that their poets freely gave, we were all invited to be, if briefly, home. 

Anne Lovering Rounds is Adjunct Professor of Humanities at Metropolitan College of New York and an editorial assistant at Cambridge University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University.

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