Thursday, July 19, 2012

Word for Word Poetry with Poets and Writers

We have the help of some very special guest bloggers at 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 the talented poets who present in the Bryant Park Reading Room sponsored by HSBC.

Anne Lovering Rounds for Word for Word Poetry, July 17, 2012
Featuring the poets of Poets and Writers

Prefacing her first poem for the Word for Word poetry series on Tuesday, July 17, Tina Chang told the crowd she had “tried really really hard” not to write a poem about Leiby Kletzky, the 8-year-old Hasidic Jewish boy murdered in Brooklyn a year ago this July. But she found that she had to, she said. Chang didn’t feel compelled to treat the horrific details; instead she wrote “Milk,” a tender poem that meditated on the title word, on “milk trousers,” a “milky life,” and that wished for childhood rewritten, a world in which “this version [could] be true.” By beginning with “Milk,” Chang set the tone for an evening showcasing the insistent power of surprising inspirations: the sometimes strange-seeming (even to the poets!) images and scenes that become expressions of desire, yearning, need.

For Chang, for instance, the Empress Dowager of China became a figure through which she could voice post-9/11 powerlessness  (“Empress Dowager Boogies,” “Self-Portrait as Empress Dowager”); the poem “Praise,” written “for Haiti” in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, came from a request she received to write a poem for Brooklyn after she became the borough’s poet laureate. We don’t always get to choose what must be written about, Chang suggested. But by the same token, in “Praise,” weeping can give way to “something that sounded like celebration”; or, as in “Love,” intimacy can be haunting, a family secret, but can also manifest itself in the “pale fleshy bead” of a peeled grape. Maybe Brooklyn can be vested in Haiti, tragedy in tenderness, love in the flesh of fruit.

The inspiration for Kimiko Hahn’s poems in her latest book, Toxic Flora, are New York Times science articles. Hahn shared a handful of these poems, as well as work from her new manuscript, which has its origins in neuroscience. The first to admit that she is not herself a scientist, Hahn takes pleasure in mining and redirecting the diction of the discipline: in “Yellowjackets,” wishing that “my sting possessed such integrity”; or, in “Ode to 52 Hertz” (the frequency of a whale of  “species unknown”) saying that “we divorced because / it doesn’t always work out according to kind.” In her new project, Hahn explores thought, consciousness, and reflex in an austere sequence of short poems. Rather than spelling out how things work, these pieces invoke an architecture for the process of thinking: “Wall,” “Chamber,” “Object,” “Gag.” In he last poem she read, “Cherry Stems,” Hahn started by noticing that even insects build up muscle memory (“I’m not too happy that fruit flies have brains”), but ultimately implied that even if we have “too much information regarding memory trace,” our performances are mysterious: “[My daughter] can twist a cherry stem into a bow with her tongue.” Even as she draws on science (scientia, knowledge) Hahn acknowledges the unknown. These poems don’t inform; they learn.      

Patrick Rosal  closed the reading by “skipping around” in his books Bone Shepherds and My American Kundiman, before sharing three new poems. As he said in one of those last poems, “Just Like That,” “I’m a flung open door.” Rosal’s poems are open too: open in their emotion, their willingness to be in pain, their willingness to shout and shock and love. “Of course the vinegar stings” (“The Woman You Love Cuts Apples For You”); “Do you want it / (Hell yeah!) baby— / cause it’s yours” (“Kundiman Ending on a Theme from T La Rock”); “I aimed for his smooth Bang! white throat” (“Stockpile”). Frank in style and jocular, sometimes self-mocking in delivery (“I’m still trying to get a handle on the basics,” he said in “Billiards After Heartache”), Rosal often speaks to the astonishing contrasts, whether grotesque or beautiful, that surround him. Let’s take a moment to notice the “lovely / mucking hum” of New Jersey, the surreal scene of boys chasing each other in a “stockpile of rockets,” the crazy convergence of mumble, song, and dance on the A train before “We ascend one by one from the dark” and “Harlem’s steady moan resumes.” Fast-paced and flung open, Rosal’s poetry is a call to notice life, in all of its contradictions, and love the hell out of it before it’s gone. 

Starting in August, Anne Lovering Rounds will be Assistant Professor of English at Hostos Community College, City University of New York.

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