Monday, June 29, 2015

Word for Word Poetry Editions with Mark Doty (Week of June 29th)

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

Michael Broder for Word for Word Poetry, June 30th, 2015
Presented in Partnership with Mark Doty

On Tuesday, June 30, the Bryant Park Reading Room presented an outstanding Word for Word program introduced by Mark Doty and featuring Tina Chang, Robin Beth Schaer, Brenda Shaughnessy, and Tracy K. Smith, all of whom were Doty’s students in a workshop at Columbia University some 20 years ago.

Womanhood, the roles women embrace or refuse, as creatures of thought, feeling, and experience, as wives and mothers, as citizens—these were some of the prominent themes of the evening’s readings by these four astounding poets.

Tina Chang
Tina Chang, the Poet Laureate of Brooklyn, is the author of the collections Of Gods & Strangers (Four Way Books, 2011) and Half-Lit Houses (Four Way Books, 2004). With Nathali Handal and Ravi Shankar, she co-edited the anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (W.W. Norton, 2008). The winner of numerous awards, she teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and is an international faculty member at the City University at Hong Kong.

Chang read her poem, “Milk,” inspired by her daughter’s fascination with the Maurice Sendak book In the Night Kitchen, famous for the lines

Milk in the batter! Milk in the batter!
We bake cake, and nothing’s the matter!

which serve as the epigraph to Chang’s poem. The comforting familiarity of milk in the life of the speaker’s son is a recurring motif of the poem: “In every definition of home, my son conjures milk,” the speaker says. But the poem becomes a meditation on boyhood and manhood, life and death, of the fears parents face for the safety of their children, as the speaker remembers the death of Leiby Kletzky in 2011, a Hasidic Jewish boy, who was kidnapped as he walked home from his school day camp in Boro Park, Brooklyn, and was found dismembered in a dumpster. “Tonight, I hold my son closer. As I put on his night clothes, I’m afraid of the world,” the speaker says.

Robin Beth Schaer
Robin Beth Schaer’s first book of poems, Shipbreaking, received the Robert Dana-Anhinga Poetry Prize and is out this summer from Anhinga Press. Having won numerous fellowships and awards and directed online programs at the Academy of American Poets for a number of years, she currently teaches at Cooper Union and The New School.

During the summers of 2009 and 2010, Schaer worked as a deckhand aboard the Tall Ship Bounty, a 180-foot full-rigged ship that went down in Hurricane Sandy. That experience of loss informs her much anticipated first book, Shipbreaking. For Schaer, however, the natural disaster of Sandy and the material loss of the Bounty are starting points for much wider meditations on love, loss, life, creation, and destruction, as in these lines from the poem “Fathom” (which appeared in The Awl):

Sometimes, the nets
raise a god in a flash of minnows.
Sometimes, matted ferns claim you,
their breath a weapon paused at the eye.
Always, we are capsized by the impossible
child in a thicket of empty books.

Brenda Shaughnessy
Brenda Shaughnessy’s Human Dark with Sugar (Copper Canyon Press, 2008) won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. Her first book, Interior with Sudden Joy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999), was nominated for the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry, a Lambda Literary Award, and the Norma Farber First Book Award. The recipient of a Bunting Fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, Shaughnessy is the poetry editor at Tin House magazine and teaches creative writing at Princeton University and The New School.

Shaughnessy read the striking poem “I Have a Time Machine” (which appears in the July 20, 2015 issue of The New Yorker). “I have a time machine,” the speaker says,

But unfortunately it can only travel into the future
at a rate of one second per second,

which seems slow to the physicists and to the grant
committees and even to me.

That is to say, life is our time machine, time is our time machine, and there is nothing we can do about it, as frightening and disconcerting as life and time may be. Nothing, that is, except to exit the time machine completely—returning, as the other poets did that evening, to themes of life and death, creation and destruction, fear and living on in the face of fear:

Thing is, I can’t turn it off. I keep zipping ahead—
well, not zipping—And if I try

to get out of this time machine, open the latch,
I’ll fall into space, unconscious,

then desiccated! And I’m pretty sure I’m afraid of that.
So I stay inside.

Tracy K. Smith 
Tracy K. Smith won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for her book, Life on Mars (Graywolf, 2011). Her first book, The Body's Question (Graywolf, 2003), won the Cave Canem prize for the best first book by an African-American poet. Her second book, Duende (Graywolf, 2007) won the James Laughlin Award and the Essense Literary Award. A Stegner Fellow at Stanford University from 1997 to 1999, Smith teaches at Princeton University.

Life a function of time was on Smith’s mind, too, as she read her poem, “Impromptu Party,” which includes the lines, “To a single woman, time is like a scrap of meat, nothing you can afford to give away.”

Together, these four women, as poets, as friends, as students of a shared teacher and mentor in Mark Doty, did honor to their shared poetic inheritance and justice to their own individual creativity.

Michael Broder

Michael Broder is the author of This Life Now (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014), a finalist for the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. His poems have a appeared in American Poetry Review, Assaracus, BLOOM, Columbia Poetry Review, Court Green, OCHO, and other journals and anthologies. He lives in Brooklyn with his husband, the poet Jason Schneiderman, and a backyard colony of feral cats.

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