Saturday, June 8, 2013

Word for Word Poetry with Willow Books

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.

Anne Lovering Rounds for Word for Word Poetry, June 4, 2013
Featuring the poets of Willow Books

This past Tuesday night, four poets of Willow Books—Randall Horton, Alan King, Tony Medina, and Rachel Eliza Griffiths—delivered a powerhouse program in the Reading Room. When he opened the reading, curator Paul Romero remarked that the poets had a connection to Washington, D.C. in common, and images of the capital did recur in the evening’s different voices: the “one-stop liquor store” of Randall Horton’s “Decision Time for the Would-Be Twelve Stepper,” the “club below U Street” of Alan King’s “At Salaam’s,” the “gutter choke[d] on cherry blossoms” of Tony Medina’s “Cannibals on U Street.” Beyond D.C., these readers’ poems journeyed through a spectacular range of of literal and literary places.

Randall Horton began by reading the poem from which his book, Pitch Dark Anarchy, takes its name. The poem that uses the phrase, “In the Year of Our Lord Circa 1840,” is a reflection on the renaming of the Amistad: “how odd the daylight / at half-mast no valid flag flew— / a nation / above deck pitch dark / anarchy fore & aft.” Setting the tone for the other poems he would share, “In the Year of Our Lord” was a blend—part observation, part protest, part epic. Horton is gifted at maintaining the balance between critique and curiosity, such that the poem can both face the hard truth of “men […] (re) sold (re) manacled” and at the same time wonder, “one day maybe salt cod, mackerel.” Counterpoint also came out of “Decision Time for the Would-Be Twelve Stepper,” where “directly above one-stop liquor store / meetings occur every hour on the hour,” and “a man contemplates which cathedral, / upstairs or down, liquor or step one.” Rather than resolving tension, Horton’s poems do the complex work of exposing it. The end of “Decision Time” summed up this spirit of exposure: “I am. I am. I am.”

The second poet, Alan King, read from Drift (2012) and from his new manuscript, Point Blank. King’s work accesses universal experience: “The Brute,” as he introduced it, was “a poem for anyone who’s ever hated their boss”; “Conundrum” addressed what it feels like to want to know, and to think you know, as a kid, what it means to be cool; “Slippery” spoke to the contemporary quandary about whether to accept an old, yet changed, acquaintance’s Facebook request (“He’s married now”). King takes these moments and mines them—in “Slippery,” Facebook transcended its reputation as a realm of self-posturing and time-wasting, as King wondered about his old friend (was he a loser? A player? Both?), “whether to respond or close him out.” Relationships both profound and casual were often at stake in King’s poems. What is the payoff for connection? What is the consequence of failed communication? Articulating the injustice of predetermined, authority-driven narratives (a form of deep failure to interact), King ended by reading “Strip Tease,” about a nephew who was racially profiled and detained at Target. Even in a moment of outrage (“I’m sick of this striptease we’re forced to perform”), King hinted that the flip side of the power trip is real intimacy, though we may be a long way from achieving it.

The loudest reader of the night, Tony Medina, made the audience laugh with “Broke Bonobo” (featuring an irreverent, odd-couple-type exchange between two bonobos—“It’s hard out here for a chimp”), and with an imagined rant of a letter from President Obama to Santa Claus. Medina’s poems showcased pain as well as humor, and emotion was close to the surface in “High Blood Pressure,” from My Old Man Was Always on the Lam, when Medina struggles with his father’s death: “68 years / of tecata screams / 68 years of street hustle / schemes.” Whether writing litany or fantasy, whether sounding angry or amused, Medina is open about surviving in this world, and what it can take. His poems point up the question, We made it this far, didn’t we?

After Tony Medina’s portion of the reading, Rachel Eliza Griffiths jokingly apologized for her “depressing poems.” Griffiths, a returning reader in the series, is audacious in the way she faces histories of loss in her poems. In “Blues For Sweet Thing,” inspired by Nina Simone, she asks, “How did I end up being a ghost of every nothing?” In “Declarations From Ghost,” the speaker implores a grandmother figure, “Tell me you are dead,” so she can desist “stopping for ghosts who over and over call out your name.” “The Reckoning of Relics” treated Griffiths’s encounter with (the remains of) Edna St. Vincent Millay on a tour through Millay’s house in Austerlitz, New York—an experience the poem figures as a kind of salvation, of being “picked […] up out of the dirt when I wanted to stay face down.” Yet even as Griffiths refuses to soften the impact of loss and uncertainty, the natural and the pastoral are the undercurrents of her poems: dirt; fruit; body. Even the difficult, she reminds us, is organic.

Anne Lovering Rounds is Assistant Professor of English at Hostos Community College, City University of New York. 

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