Monday, February 29, 2016

Word for Word Winter Poetry with Ugly Duckling Presse

With Word for Word Poetry extended into the winter months, we have added a collection of guest blogs capturing a first-hand account of readings in our Bryant Park Reading Room sponsored by HSBC.

Don Yorty for Word for Word Poetry, January 19, 2016

Featuring the poets of Ugly Duckling Presse

The Bryant Park Poetry Series started its 2016 winter season with a reading at the Kinokuniya Bookstore across from the park on Sixth Avenue at 6 pm on January the 19th. It was a very cold evening, freezing, but that didn't stop folks from coming to listen to four poets read from their books recently published by the Ugly Duckling Press, a nonprofit publisher of poets that evolved out of a 1990s magazine by the same name, and now resides in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Every poetry reading is its own creation made up of those who read and those who come to listen, and I was curious to see and hear how this one would be different. It was standing room only and obvious that the poets and the press had a lot of fans in the audience.
Callie Garnett

The first poet was Callie Garnett, a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa, reading from her first book, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, beginning with a poem called

The Artichoke

the grass today is so green it repairs a 
drive-in movie screen

flapping, defunct
soaked in gin

even the hay is healthy, hay colored songs 
come in my head and burn away

what cruelty, its body eaten
and then its heart eaten.

This little gem of a poem is written in couplets of opposites, images of growth and ruin. The grass isn't just green it is flapping, alive, yet defunct and soaked in gin—Does something soaked in gin move? The artichoke we eat is good for us, but that is it for the artichoke. Callie’s poems were comforting about home and love with a grandmother, a boyfriend or a father fishing at the pond, except that’s not a pond, that’s a lake. Life is real, but in surreal ways, not always making sense, but we are home at least. Callie’s poems kept me interested reminding me of a child beginning to understand the meaning of things, inchoate, before knowing their proper names.

Laura Sims
Laura Sims read next from her new book Staying Alive that begins with a quote from H.G. Wells, “I want to go ahead of Father Time with a scythe of my own,” and at first that seemed what Laura had in mind, mowing down all in front of her. Would that include us? She read about an apocalypse, war torn and distraught. I grew up in the fifties when the threat of nuclear annihilation was real, so the idea of being on the eve of destruction is no stranger to me. As it turned out, Laura’s reading wasn't grim because her language was engaging. Read, and while you read, listen:

The present sheared
Asunder from its parent cliffs and all the past was just 
The sound of metal
At the edge of space
At dawn. Every blasted city
The light! It came from underneath—inside the earth— 
And shining upward, through
The rocks, the ground, and everything 

Laura’s each new line, short or long, evoked images and thoughts, poems that turned out not to be about dying, but about living, about surviving. There was hope:

We happened on no dead
Instead we happened on a man whose palms 
Filled with berries. We packed up our needs (amidst vapor 
And smoke) to make for the virtual fortress. In a sliver 
Of light, something crystal
Or crystalline
Graced the court of manhood then was gone 

Karen Weiser
When Karen Weiser got up, she told us she was going to read something she hadn’t planned on reading because Laura’s reading had moved her so much. She was going to read a post apocalyptic poem that spoke from the place of being already dead in the voice of Billy Budd. Karen is an American literature scholar, and her book, Or the Ambiguities, is taken from the title of a novel by Herman Melville, Pierre, Or the Ambiguities, a book I happen to be reading now. The Billy Budd poem Karen read was called The Darbies, but first she read a new poem:

air + force

Even the magic of looking turns air into a volume
music that is perhaps a musculature
every reaction a mysterious note that hums
with a minimum of information, this documentation
is transmutation—car horns bleat a communiqué—
some kind of universal knowledge the magpie
spells out from a telephone pole in the desert;
our conversation snakes single file but for
the desire for one second of a life to be recorded
with an almost mystical precision,
not the abyss of the disjointed, but the fair hum
of phenomenal revelation in an order particular
to one person: the glinting reflections of traffic
or water cresting the river; the gully, the magpie
calls, is also a music desiring to be fixed
an orbital movement permanently adapting itself
to perception, its own living eyewitness

I like how this poem about communication, some kind of universal knowledge the magpie/  spells out from a telephone pole in the desert, and about perception, of phenomenal revelation in an order particular/ to one person, ends with, its own living witness, which describes what Karen’s reading of The Darbies did, using her words and words by Melville, the living and the dead, to communicate and share with us. Darbies are an anachronistic name for handcuffs and the words of the poem are written in the negative space of handcuffs. Poems written in the shapes of things are called Concrete Poems, which was a very popular form of poetry in the 19th Century around the time Melville wrote. Here are the first Darbies written and read by Karen spoken by Billy Budd, and typed out by me as best I could:

                                                 these     darbies
I’m a visual ana-   gram; my  self sliced and
             mirrored so I can make sense of floating, and sink-
   ing, they’ll lash in hammock            and drop me deep, fathoms
down, though hands in paint- ing always tell of something,
            the fingers divinities, the palms bronze and held near the waist,
pointing to that which is out-        side the frame, but not in your world
neither, pendant pearl from the yard-arm end, the thing that
can’t be seen but only   felt: is the hand of the artist, so
       I’ll shake a     friendly one ere I sink,

Karen’s channeling of Melville is something I have thought about myself. We need a reader and a writer for communication to happen. Everyone who reads has favorite authors who passionately speak to them. In the act of reading, the understanding between the writer and the reader is timeless. The reader may be alive and the writer might be dead, but still there is the conversation, the sharing in the shape of a poem that is written and read. Karen’s poems, receptive to this idea and practice, soundly happen.

Jennifer Stella
Jennifer Stella, who is a doctor as well as a writer, read poems that all began with the same title: Your lapidarium feels wrought. A lapidarium is a place where jewels are stored and a jewel is an apt metaphor for a poem. You can move both in your fingers and see something new with every new angle in the light as you turn. Jennifer’s abstract angles sometimes seem to have a funny bone, playful with words:

My ring size or cow skulls
and pelvis in frames say
there are sierras
in the waterhouse you keep
of my poems. Your favorite copied 
anachronistic charcoal I 
wear if it’s raining. Or bone flowers 
in pueblo. It’s
still. Asked twice without knees and
it was in Faneuil and on worn white
leather and I thought
you were kidding

During Jennifer’s reading, she told us: “I really like the thought of poetry as palimpsest, as the history of everything layering on top of itself, that we are all coming from the same source.” I like this thought too. Poems certainly are wrought out of what is rough, every book a lapidarium of sorts, a place where precious jewels, or poems, can be stored and viewed again and again. Jennifer certainly had this in mind when she read the last Your lapidarium feels wrought:

The symphony last
night! Amazing like
nothing I kept starting
you letters
in my head, saying
to myself,


For this reading, every reader had prepared well and easily kept us focused while she read. We started at home, then traveled an apocalyptic landscape grim with hope, and afterward came to the realm of the dead and spoke to them, conversations that were poems, lapidariums, bright repositories of thoughts shared by us humans. The audience itself was a testament to this tradition of writing and reading, speaking and listening. The audience, some without chairs, stood and stayed; as many folks as there were at the beginning, there were that many at the end.

Don Yorty
Don Yorty was born in Lebanon, Pennsylvania in 1949. He has a BA in Latin and Greek from the City University of New York. A poet and garden activist, he has two published collections of poetry, A Few Swimmers Appear and Poet Laundromat, and was included in Out of This World: An Anthology of the Poetry of the St. Mark's Poetry Project1966-1991 (Crown). His novel, What Night Forgets, was published by Herodias Press. And his poems have been recently published in LiVE MAG! and the Literati Quarterly. He lives in New York City and also keeps up a blog at

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