March 16, 2010

Split this Rock, Friday, March 12, the Readings

There were 2 readings this evening, both in the auditorium of Bell Multicultural High School. Sarah Browning, the first half MC, said how she had originally invited Bruce Wiegel to be a part of tonight’s reading, but that he was ill. Then she & each of the featured poets read a poem by Bruce Wiegel to put his presence in the house.

Arthur Sze began with a poem from his earlier book, Quipu, then read from his latest collection of poems, The Ginko Light (2009, Copper Canyon Press). He reads quietly, some poems set in China, an extended piece “Chrysalis,” a meditation in precise, poetic descriptions, as well as the title poem of the new book, another extended piece in multiple sections.

Patricia Smith, who seems to be at all the best poetry festivals, was there when Slam was invented, when Slam was good poems read well with expression, passionate, but not theatrical. She began with one of those email letters from Nigeria & her response, filled with humor & compassion. A poem about attempting to put her arms around her son after he spent 2 years in jail was a mother’s tender memory of a boy growing up, of a mother’s pain, while her memories of her own mother were the basis of “An All-Purpose Product” (Lysol). She even got “nostalgic” for the former president in “The President Flies Over.”

Martin Espada, who also had read at the first Split-this-Rock festival, read from both the selected poems & from The Republic of Poetry. He read about Puerto Rico & his hometown, Brooklyn, & the death of Neruda, about being at the tomb of Frederick Douglas, his voice rich & deep. “A Playboy Calendar & the Rubiyat of Omar Khayam” is a new poem about becoming a poet, & he paid tribute to his activist father (& other unnamed activists) in “Sleeping on the Bus“. He, & his poems, are an excellent example of the Festival’s subtitle, “poems of provocation & witness.”

After a break for dinner at my favorite neighborhood restaurant, Haydee’s, I was back at Bell for an exciting (even titillating) & varied reading by 4 poets, “expanding the territory of poetry,” hosted by Abdul Ali.

Natalie E. Illum is a young Slam poet (currently 25th in the Slam world, she told us) who was best when not performing in an over-enunciated slam style, even when struggling to read a poem from pages flying off the music stand. Her poems deal with issues of gender identity, ability & politics. She began with a moving family memoir/alternate reality, “Adaptation.” An older piece, “Protest Moon,” includes the story of her brother in an anti-war protest; moving, tender, & touching even when dark.

Jeffrey McDaniel is a product of the Washington, DC slams & of college poetry theater. His work sits on the line of slam poet/stand-up comic, with elaborate metaphors leaning on humor for their effect, sort of like Tristan Tzara meets Jerry Seinfeld. The poems were like the riffs that rise up at late at parties, variations on what God is, a college love poem in war-time lingo, making “The Grudge” a plant you can water; his surrealist over-cooked images worked best on an eerie short poem about being in NYC on September 11, 2001.

Jan Beatty took us on a sex tour of Canada & seedy towns in America. Her work is grounded in working class culture, as a waitress (“Instructions on Tipping”), a social worker in a prison, sometimes grim, sometimes humorous with hard-edged irony. “I Saw One of Blake’s Angels” was set in a peep-show. Others were memories of her adopted family in Pittsburgh, her steel-mill father, the personal (i.e., sexual) as politics in the righteous anger of “The Shooter.”

I first met Quincy Troupe almost 20 years ago when he came to perform here in Albany & his poem to Magic Johnson is a staple in the poetry workshops I’ve done in local schools. Tonight he read 2 poems, the first from 1998, a long lush description of waking in the morning at his friend Peter Schwartz’s house in Spain, watching his wife sleeping; the other, “Switching in the Kitchen,” for the sculptor & installation artist, Mildred Howard, filled with jazz references (from his book The Architecture of Language), both poems ecstatic incantations in be-bop rhythms, the kind of recitation to which slam poets aspire.

A nice mix of the younger & older poets, bouncing off each other – the beat goes on.

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