August 5, 2016

Poets in the Park, July 30

This was the last of the season, again with a fabulous local poet & an equally fabulous national poet — Bunkong Tuon & Sarah Browning. We were in Washington Park in front of the Robert Burns statue — before the rain.

B-K Tuon started by paying an appreciative tribute to the local poetry community for its support, then went on to give a fine reading that showed why we like his work (not to mention why we like him). His first poem was “First Snow” from his book Gruel (NYQ Books, 2015). His poems are infused with his experience as a refugee, someone who has gone on to a middle-class life & become a professor of English at Union College. His poem “ESL Lesson” was from his younger days & addressed a confrontation of Cambodian & Vietnamese refugees, whose families could have been on opposite sides in the war, & the poem “Fishing for Trey Platoo” which was also from his book. The new poem, “On a Motorbike in Saigon,” was from an experience during a semester abroad with students. “Heavy like a Sack of Rice” was a horrifying monologue in the voice of a migrant sea-slave worker, based on a New York Times article, while “How Much Does Poetry Make?” was a lighter piece from his refugee family’s point of view, & “Still Water” (from Misfit magazine) told of an adult encounter with bullies while walking with his grandmother. He ended with a poem that he read for audience members with whom he had been discussing language before the reading, “Reciting Alphabets” about learning Khmer from his grandfather.

I first met Sarah Browning when I attended the first Split This Rock Poetry Festival back in 2008; she is a co-founder (with Melissa Tuckey, who read at Poets in the Park in 2013) & currently is the Executive Director of the festival. Today she had been chased up the Thruway by the rain storms heading this way. She began her reading with a couple of poems about the US invasion of Iraq & the city of Baghdad from her book Whiskey in the Garden of Eden (The Word Works, 2007), then on to a couple also in the book about growing up on Chicago’s Southside, “Southside Mermaids” & “That Summer.” The poem “Calling Down the Airwaves” was like a commentary on the Trump candidacy with a character named Hate. Then on to some poems from her forthcoming book titled (currently) Killing Summer, the title poem in 3-parts on racial violence & death in our cities, & “Langston Hughes Joins the Merchant Marine 1923” (& gets rid of all his books except Leaves of Grass!). Sarah described how she is a descendant of slave-owners, & read a couple poems exploring her feelings about this, the poem titled “This is the Poem” telling a friend about her ancestry, & “Drinking as a Political Act,” remembering her father’s mint julips & its plantation origin. She ended with “In Your Darkness” a marriage break-up poem, & then the related, but more humorous “Dr. Bigbeef, or Internet Dating Over 50.” We were so glad she made it here through the storms & the storms here held off for her reading.

It was a stellar season of Poets in the Park, & I hope to be back next year to carry on the tradition started oh so many years ago by Tom Nattell (who I think must’ve helped to save me a couple of primo parking spots this year). Thanks to the Hudson Valley Writers Guild for financial support & to all the folks in our literate, literary community for their support.

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