July 5, 2010

New York State Summer Writers Institute, June 28

The Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs is a program of workshops & readings by A-list writers, many of whom return year after year (as do some students). In addition there is a full schedule of free readings by these same writers, nearly one each night. This was the first in this year's series, with the first pitch by former US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, reading poems with jazz accompaniment by Todd Coleman on bass & Pat Labarbara on tenor sax.

But first we have to endure the ritual adulation from Bob Boyers, who out-did himself tonight with a comment that Pinksy's poetry is able to avoid "nebulous immensities" which brought chuckles from the audience, a later comment by Pinsky himself & even table talk during the reception afterwards. Mercifully, tonight the introduction was short.

Robert Pinsky's movie-star looks could probably pack the house even if he wasn't a celebrity-poet, a fine one as well, & basically a nice guy. There were the other celebrity poets in the front row (Carolyn Forche, Frank Bidart, etc.), standing-room-only in the rest of Gannett Auditorium, with honeys at my feet in the aisles & a representation of local area (Albany, Saratoga) poets.

Pinsky began with a poem about Adolf Sax, the inventor of that quintesental jazz instrument; he also performed "Samurai Song," "Antique" (a love poem involving his parents, "Street Music," Ben Jonson's "His Excuse for Loving," "The Refinery" (which included a history of the English language, & the intervention of some gods), & ended with "Rhyme." His presentation was respectful of the musician's space, as were the musicians sensitive to the words. He read the poems as if they were "songs" or musical compositions, repeating lives, even whole stanzas. The musicians' charts were copies of the poems themselves, & Pinsky allowed plenty of time for these 2 seasoned jazz players to stretch out & play.

There has been much debate since the 1950s about combining jazz & poetry, but Robert Pinsky's performance tonight with Todd Coleman & Pat Labarbara showed how well it could be done when both the poet & the musicians pay attention, & are sensitive, to what the other is doing. Just like Life, I guess.

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