February 2, 2014

Writers Institute v. Frequency North, January 30

This day was a study in contrasts, or perhaps a small window into the grand diversity of today's world of writing.

In the afternoon I went to the Writers' Institute series on the campus of the University at Albany for a seminar by the poet Carolyn Forché. W.W. Norton & Company has just released the anthology Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500 - 2001, edited by Forché & Duncan Wu. Her earlier anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993) is what I like to call "my desert island book," a text to which I keep returning. Much of the audience were young students in poetry classes, including some who are studying Forché's long poem "On Earth" from her 2003 collection Blue Hour: Poems. Of course, there were faculty members & a grey contingent of community poets.

Carolyn Forche & Don Faulkner
It was a relaxed, spirited conversation about writing, putting together the anthology, “being a poet” (& a laughing commentary on “branding”), on political poetry (going back to her earlier poem “The Colonel”), some questions about “On Earth.” She said one of the surprises in doing Poetry of Witness was discovering the life & work of John Newton, a one-time slave merchant who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.” With her warm, open manner & wide-ranging knowledge of poetry (& life) one can see why she is a popular reader & teacher. There was also a reading scheduled for later, but I was pleased I got to see Carolyn Forché in this more relaxed setting.

Jade Sylvan
Later in the evening I drove down Western Ave. to the College of St. Rose for a reading in the Frequency North series by poet/novelist Jade Sylvain. We are blessed here in the Capital District area to have such series as the Writers Institute & Frequency North readings that bring in leading writers for free readings. These 2 series complement each other: while Don Faulkner at the Writers’ Institute brings in the “A List” of New York Times best-sellers, Daniel Nester at the College of St. Rose presents some of the best & exciting of the newer generation of writers.

Tonight’s reading was also well attended, mostly by St. Rose students, with a scattering of folks from the larger writing & lesbian community. Jade Sylvan has been on tour to promote her newest book, Kissing Oscar Wilde (Write Bloody Press, 2012), which she described as a “novelized memoir about a poetry tour in France,” in prose, poetry, even a play. She read a generous selection that kept us enthralled, including (“by way of introduction,” she said) “Graves,” “Halloween: 2011 Boston” written as a single sentence, a chapter that was a list of early loves, & a key chapter, “Abstinence.” At one point she brought up to the mic one of the St. Rose students, Nancy, to read the slam poem mentioned in one of the chapters she had read. Her work is self-absorbed, about exploring who she is, how she fits in the world. The slam poem she read as an encore had a similar theme of recognizing your 14-year old self within.

So the contrast I referred to above was between the outward-looking “poetry of witness” & the inward gaze of self-exploration (& it’s twin sister look-at-me-ain’t-I-special). I've done both in my poems over the years.  I've come to realize that an engaged art is the product of both — an artist who examines who she or he is in the world while confronting the wider world around them, & then learning to respond to that world as an artist. & it now occurs to me that Jade Sylvan’s examination of gender & the other roles we play is the same discussion as that of “branding” earlier in the day with Carolyn Forché. We need it all.

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