April 3, 2014

Split This Rock Poetry Festival, Friday March 28 — Featured Reading

The MC of tonight’s reading was Dan Vera, Chair of the Board of Directors of Split This Rock, & tonight’s tribute was to poet Juan Gelman with a recording of Gelman reading, in Spanish, “On Poetry.”

Each year, even on non-Festival years, Split This Rock has a poetry contest & on the Festival year the winning poet gets to read her or his poem at a Featured Reading. The 2014 winner was Karen Skolfield for her poem “At the Mall, There’s a Machine That Tells You If You Are Racist.” The poem is also printed in the program & available, with all the winning poems, on the Split This Rock website. Karen teaches at UMass Amherst & I expect to have her read in Albany sometime this year.

This night’s DC Youth Slam Team poet was Malachi Byrd whose piece was about growing up in a fatherless home, recited from memory, Slam-style. At one point the finger-snapping from his fellow team mates (& others), sounding like a badly-rehearsed chorus of crickets began to get a bit intrusive.

But what followed, from the 3 Featured Poets, was a study in contrast as well as lessons on ways to present good poems while still maintaining a level of performance that supports the poem without overwhelming it in theatrics. I hope the members of the Youth Slam Team were paying attention.

After some trouble with her clip-on mic, Maria Melendez Kelson used the stationary mic to give a lively, energetic performance of her poems, without spit & attitude, beginning with the “blasphemous” (her term) “Good Friday,” printed in Poetry, followed by “ICE Agents Storm My Porch” (also in Poetry). Her other poems were equally politically engaged without becoming polemics, while keeping it close to the personal: “Money Mindset” with the riveting refrain “spend it if you got it,” the troubling “Knot of Prayer” about moving next door to a registered sex-offender, & “For Light So Loved the World She Gave It More” about the Sun’s cycle of energy.

That last poem was a perhaps a fortunate little bit of synchronicity since Tim Seibles’ poem was titled “One Turn Around the Sun.” In fact this was the only poem he read, it was a 21at Century Whitmanesque tour-de-force meditation on Time, Memory, with rich images going back to his youth, the poem carried ahead by the flow of words, associations, not overly performed, but read expressively, using his resonant voice to full advantage, slickly combining rant & humor & tenderness. Much to be learned from this performance by the young poets in the audience (& us older poets too).

Anne Waldman has a characteristic performance style that I have tried to capture over the years in my photos (one of my shots from her performance at the QE2 in Albany is included in her massive collection of poems In the Room of Never Grieve, New and Selected Poems 1985 - 2003 (Coffee House Press, 2003). She began with a selection from Manatee/Humanity (Penguin Poets, 2009), a “sub-atomic Buddhist” eco-poem, delivered, as was much of her reading, in her trademark excited rant. Her poem for Amiri Baraka, with the message to fight back, “Allegorical Baraka” was delivered in a style that be best described as “Shamanistic,” while a section from her “Gossamurmur Project” took on identify theft & then gay marriage by playing & declaiming manic word strings & language twists.

A brilliant work of programming by the Split This Rock committee.  More photos can be found at my Flickr! site.

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