Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Word for Word Winter Poetry with Nightboat Books

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, April 19, 2016
Featuring the poets of Nightboat Books

During the winter months, the Bryant Park Reading Series takes place inside the Kinokuniya Bookstore at 1073 Avenue of the Americas. The idea is that until May, it is too cold outside for poets to read in Bryant Park where the summer series takes place on the north side of the park under a grove of trees near the statue of William E. Dodge, the great 19th Century defender of Native Americans. Tuesday, April 19th was the date for the last indoor reading; and Nightboat Books was presenting four poets. The 19th was also the New York primary, and a beautiful spring day as well, the most beautiful that had come along so far, a day you certainly wanted to be outside not in. Because I cover the readings, I try to arrive early, but on April 19th I lingered in Bryant Park enjoying the wonderful weather, and didn't go inside until ten before six, ten minutes before the reading started. Only two people were sitting on the folding chairs provided, a woman toward the back, and a younger man, college age, nearer the front, friends of a poet perhaps. I didn’t even see any of the poets. Where was everybody? Either enjoying the weather, I thought, or voting.

By six, Stephen Motika, Nighboat’s publisher, Paul Romero, the host, and three of the poets had showed up. Also, about a dozen more folks added themselves to the audience finally outnumbering the poets. While a few more people trickled in and we waited for Felix Bernstein, the final poet to arrive, I talked to Stephen Motika about the goals of Nightboat. “Poetry is at the heart of Nightboat's publishing program,” he told me. “Our challenge is to publish a wide and eclectic group of books, but make it seem like they belong together on a list. We have a vision, a commitment to publishing and seeking an audience for books that are adventurous, intelligent, resisting of convention, and transcending of boundaries.” I listened and wanted to split myself into four people, one for each of the poets about to read, and add a little more to the audience.
E. Tracy Grinnell

E. Tracy Grinnell was first. Her book is Hell Figures. She read from two parts of it, Helen, A Fugue and The Birds founded in the classics, Greek myth, both comedy and tragedy. She read from The Birds first. Notice the rhythm of repetition and notice too that this section of nine lines begins with is; there is no subject. The verb contains all.

is a rhyme, a repetition, or no reason
a throat closes, dying of words—Sphinx
from the Greek “to strangle”
an ecstatic mind becomes your own worst enemy and
your own madness is what you see, as nature turning against you
an ecstatic mind becomes your own worst enemy and
from the Greek “to strangle”
a throat closes, dying of words—Sphinx
is a rhyme, a repetition, or no reason

As Tracy read, I could hear the ancient choruses, words and phrases becoming important repeated again and again, helping me remember them. The Birds is a series of untitled sections from nine to eleven lines, an ocean of sorts out of which waves rise and fall, each section a wave with its own characteristics yet part of the rhythmic whole rising and falling back into itself, the roiling ocean, the poet’s voice, the order of disorder, riding the waves in a manner of waiting out, a poem:

a sonorous animal moves with and within the landscape it also defines
is no more capable of turning on than away
sadness rearranged to madness that by nature’s law
—to bend, to become—rends itself into
the order of disorder, riding the waves in a manner of waiting out
your own madness is what you see as nature turning against you
the order of disorder, riding the waves in a manner of waiting out
—to bend, to become—rends itself into
sadness rearranged to madness that by nature’s law
is no more capable of turning on than away
a sonorous animal moves with and within the landscape it also defines

The poetry in Hells Figures is not only to be listened to, but to be read on the page. I got to read Helen, A Fugue a little later, and the poem itself reminded me physically of e.e. cummings in the way it abstracted the syntax so that even a comma doesn’t follow the word it separates from the rest of the sentence, but winds up at the beginning of the next line with the rest of the sentence:

Blood people
in the roiling ocean

to fathom, where there is nothing

                        even a pregnancy, is
feverish, I secretly

                                    , beyond fantasy
ambition follows

in a figure, my


in flight, a footprint falls

Interesting beautiful earful stuff and interesting to look at as well. I would advise Tracy, however, as I would advise any poet, that what is made wonderful and exciting by repetition, can also become so hypnotic that it puts us to sleep. Poetry must be mnemonic, something to be remembered and not forgotten. That is where the struggle is and, for the poet ancient or modern, will always remain.

Felix Bernstein

Artist, poet and student (getting his MA in English), Felix Bernstein came next. I sat right in back of him and could see on the pages he was about to read that he had crossed out huge sections of what he had written, not only crossed them out but totally obliterated them. Whatever was there, it was impossible to see to convey to read what he had written; in fact, it looked to me that on some pages Felix had crossed out more words than remained, impressing the editor in me. It’s important to edit, but the poet must be careful not to cut out too much, or the poem will become lame, missing an arm or a leg, and needing a crutch to go about. The title of Bernstein’s new book was Burn Book. I liked that title because it reminded me of Yoko Ono who published a book called Grapefruit in the early 70s that told the reader on the very first page: “Burn this book.” So when Bernstein got up, I was kind of expecting flames. Awkward and fragile and thin, Mr. Bernstein leaned over his words at the podium, or what was left of them, glancing from the page to the audience sizing us up with a thoughtful tentative look, deciding perhaps if he should stay or run—he had been late. And why? I thought. Had he missed the train, was he putting off an audience? Perhaps he’d been editing up to the last minute, what he was about to read, not from Burn Book, but from part of a new book, The Last Man. Because I had already seen the editing, I wondered how much of what we were hearing now would still be there when it was finally done.

Bernstein is also a performance poet and when he began to read I thought I’d do my own performance and started to write down what Felix read as fast as he said it without line breaks or anything, just what I heard:

Together we fight against negation, a third tier community where I’m supposed to not withdraw but nobody will let up. People and feelings are disorders, sad faces. There’s no point in no point in not point in not. Never felt worthwhile because love is not worth this while. Is it just me or is it you that I am milking, is it just us or is it that that I am milking? Frenzies hurt, they hurt and excitement is bad, trouble is cease, thin air somehow to be held refuses to give a helping hug…

The work was interesting and likable, critical of others and itself, a subjectively objective argument, denigrating and full of itself, awkward and fragile too. Was it too honest? I wanted to give the poet a helping hug. Felix quickly ruffled through his pages, skipping many, settling on something, reading slowly, puzzled as if he still weren’t sure what words should be there, and then at other times reading with a focused animated excitement that drew me in listening. A few days after the reading, Felix emailed me a portion of what he had read. It was interesting to see how the poet laid out his lines. What I heard and wrote, was not what Felix had written. I like how the poet gives shape to this poem and hope that he stays a you worth writing.

The coy orphan is gobbled up and spat on.
Her scarf just got caught in the door no biggie
Milton’s multitudes of virginal lambs are useless
Everything that has been written has already been slaughtered
He withdraws his hand but
One finger gets trapped
Man must keep it new to keep the father’s demand alive
The fathers demand for a spontaneous building of an order
It must be spontaneous because
We must pick it ourselves
All men contain a vista
That ends in the corner
Awaken yourself to that vista
And find you’re worse
Off than it seemed
You’re less than one
Man, maybe you’re
Not a good guy
Or a good dad
Or a good husband
Or a good friend
In all honesty,
You’re an abyss
Which is okay
But it means
There’s no
You worth

Paolo Javier

Paolo Javier, who was next, read from his new book Court of the Dragon. Paolo was born in the Philippines and told us that the dragon in the title has more to do with the idea of the dragon in the East where dragons are powerful and good and link us to the powers of the earth. Paolo’s dragon was not the fire breathing destructive dragon of the West. In a book of long poems, he read a few sonnets dedicated to Frank Lima, a mentor of his, which is impressive because Frank Lima is, though few know of him, a great (a giant, a dragon of an) American poet.


to Frank Lima


leaves the awash in desolate I miss you under twisted rope where
I was on streets of rusty cage
oscillate sun-tossed room
what this week alike face of tornado cabinetry
brute thaw
this poem occasion the end of time
why experience imagine loss of gendarme under roof bare like nexus offering
I believe happen squander tornado or impasse wrong due pain
etch in sky surrender roses
Nichiren is the difference. I weep & chant in the morning to see
tempestuous delay, love
Lorca in mid-February say mauve abundance embrace sudsy police
siphon planet Ill badger with gallows
whenever the night steals its shadow


inquire asunder law homage Ill kneel manic sunless sojourn vacate
a million miles salvation olive estate sequence renege
a lost train set enter a docent column blank space
I course through Florence a mile of rope inquire stab troubadour
think the way it is I like the sky a villanelle
alligator lion alligator fury under shell
disguised as self ask if you’ve eaten of its midnight levee
from hotels close down hearing to rim
storm worm through gloaming in painted Angkor Wat
red dawn New York give rope
own hurricane sample Negritude
over calm with storm wind across Angkor Wat
hurricane description plumb depths
not you too in red dawn of New York City entity

As Paolo read, I was reminded of other poets from an earlier era in New York who thought language was the thing, the word itself, the sound of it, its physical appearance, its being, but conjuring up what comes next when one word is simply followed by another with or without syntax becoming its own sense, its own being, what it then means:

tornado cabinetry
alligator lion alligator fury under shell
brute thaw
etch in sky surrender roses

These abstract combinations Paolo balances by other lines that are literal, that make perfect sense:

I weep & chant in the morning to see

The poet who works with this kind of poetry—let’s call it language school—has a rough row to hoe, a tough seed to sow. Poets I know and have known have done it well, when they did it, like Bernadette Mayer and Jackson MacLow. It requires poets who know their craft and have not only faith in themselves, but faith in an audience that will follow. Paolo’s work reminded me a little bit of the first reader, Tracy, too. His use of repetition, anaphora, the hypnotic. During his reading, Paolo told us that the art of writing poetry was “falling asleep and staying awake enough,” which is a perfect description of the poet’s goal. Falling asleep and staying awake enough, poetry must hypnotize the reader, transport the listener, but most important of all, it must keep us awake as well, and not be a sleeping pill.

After dinner, I talked with Paolo. In fact, he talked my ear off, he and his lovely wife (they have a young daughter). Paolo, though a slight fellow, is both handsome and engaging. Is he handsome because he’s engaging or engaging because he's handsome? Perhaps he is neither, and what makes him so likable is that he is a good listener, which is an art, and a way to understanding too, and if he cultivates that in his writing, his interest and his curiosity will keep the reader guessing, not sleepy but excited. I wish him the best.

Cole Swensen
Cole Swensen was last to read. She read from Landscapes on a Train published by Nightboat in 2015. I wasn’t aware of her work and listened.

Planes of migrating geese. The geese are hundreds, they are sheets, hundreds of
Feet up there are two sheets of geese only barely each other and shifting screens,
The infinite splitting of finite things.
Light keeps up. Light touch on building, light builds on. On the inside of the window.
Cut and form. Most colors amount to this without names. It happens in sun and there
Is little else.
Pale bond. Grain runs. Embarks upon. It’s mostly rain and we pass on. Past a
Tossing road through a stand of hay. Stand among graves. Stand trees in a line
Migrating through rain, the rain first a green and then a form.
Cows turn to crows in a field alone. Dovecote grey in wind, now mill, now wall
In the hedgerows a birdhouse. All the hares are facing east. And the cows walking
Left between. Five men building a stone wall. Stones the size of hands. And shape.
The hands and the stones are equal parts of the wall.

There is a magic quality in this poetry that really puts me in the here and now. Now mill, now wall. I see Cows turn into crows, which is exactly what poetry is supposed to do: to see what we have not seen or to see what has always been there, but not seen before. We do not know until we do. How quickly it all passes beyond the window. How quick we must be to catch it. Swenson’s poetry does catch it; it is quick, it is even ephemeral, but with work and craft and skill, Cole manages to put into our hands a book that lets us examine the ethereal, which is rare and almost impossible to do.

Nightboat is going to publish a book by Cole Swenson about writers and walking. Writers walk. I know this to be true because I am a writer and I walk too. After the reading, I mentioned to Cole that the poet Bill Kushner and I used to do a lot of walking. In fact, two weeks before Bill died of a heart attack at the age of 84. we took a walk. During our last walk, I complained to Bill that my inspiration for writing sonnets was drying up, and Bill told me, “Walk fourteen blocks and for every block you walk, write one line.” Cole, I found out, is a fan of Bill’s work. What do you know? It’s a small world.

Cole read one poem from her upcoming book, On Walking On, to be published by Nightboat in 2017. It’s about the poet Nerval, who had a pet lobster that he walked at the end of a blue silk ribbon through the streets of Paris. “Is it anymore ridiculous,” Nerval argued, “to walk a lobster than a dog?”

Gerard de Nerval

What is the wander, what aimless shelter, what within
a very small room. Or we could call it a city. Or we could build a city

in which you could walk without a future. The habit of detour
that prefigured the dérive. Or simply the gentle persistence of walking

from friend to friend. In mid 19th-century France, there was a distinct
turn in the literature of walking from the country to the city—“Where

was I when” became “Where am” against the night, if I moved slowly
enough, if I turned and struck. And in its stone we find. And now of stone,

we glide, and now we fall upon Apollinaire spread out in a thin layer
over the whole of Europe in a single night’s walk across Paris.

Although many people stayed outside enjoying the weather or casting their vote, those of us who were lucky enough to be inside at the Kinokuniya bookstore enjoyed a reading of four poets that was intimate, well-written and well-timed too. I think when it was over, everybody wanted a little more.

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 Project, 1966-1991 (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 donyorty.com

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