August 19, 2017

Poets in the Park, July 2017

Carrying on the series started by Albany poet & activist Tom Nattell back in 1989, the poetry readings at the Robert Burns statue in Albany’s Washington Park were held this year on July 15, July 22 & July 29. While there were a few sprinkles of rain on July 22, that ended before the poets read, the evenings were mostly clear, the weather pleasant, the poets inspiring.

On July 15 Karen Skolfield & Jay Wenk opted to read in alternating half-sets, giving a bit of back-&-forth to the program. Karen began with a poem about the necklace of “skulls” she was wearing, imagining what they remembered & talked about, then a poem based on the curious fact that there are only 2 escalators in Wyoming, “Upward Mobility,” in which they talk to each other; continuing the conversation theme, the new poem “Vectors” was about a conversation with a neighbor. Another conversation of sorts was “I Ask My Son to Send a Word for a Poem & He Sends Nothing,” filled with Biblical references.

Jay also had a whimsical beginning, “When I Get to Stonehenge,” then read the historically descriptive “Wounded Knee.”  “Christmas 1914” was set in the trenches of World War I, the soldiers singing carols in German & English & French. Then to a poem from "his war" (World War II), at the end going home & the political aftermath, his war never ended.

In her second set Karen read some poems from her military experience, many looking at the origin of words used in the military, such the poem “Enlist” on recruitment, “Kevlar” (invented by a woman) built on her memories of basic training, & “Discharge” on getting out. The short poem “The Army Smart Book: Inspirational Quotes” has a drill sergeant pondering the “breaking” of female recruits. She also included poems about war in other eras — an ekphrastic poem based on a woodcut “The Great Sacrifice of the Romans on Undertaking a War,” & the related poems “Civil War Reenactment” with her kids at a playground, a meditation on war, & “Sailor’s Creek Battlefield,” hummingbirds at a civil war battlefield.

Jay returned with “Pluck that Pregnant Dandelion” a philosophical piece about scattering seeds to the wind, the unfinished & untitled poem on the myth of Cassandra & Apollo as told in the Iliad combined with images from the Gettysburg museum, the timely & moving “Thank You For Your Service” on military suicides, & concluded with “The Clowns” considering comedy from ancient Greeks to modern times, enough to make you pee in your pants (or toga).

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The second of the three events, on July 22, featured 2 local poets Ian Macks & Liv McKee.

Ian began with a piece about a friend & an abusive relationship, a theme he returned to throughout his reading, this one with the Albany skyline as a backdrop. Others on that theme included “When You Can’t Restrain Yourself” (written today), one based on A Streetcar Named Desire, another set in Troy overhearing a police encounter. There were other poems set in Troy, or Brooklyn (a descriptive piece set in a dive bar), one a meditation on the homeless. His poems were personal, such as one about an infatuation, or about the consolation of his art on leaving home. They were mostly short, mostly untitled, many read from his journal, with rhymes & half-rhymes popping up at times. There were even a few poems about Pittsburgh, of all places, filled with angst & introspection. He ended as he began with a poem critical of his friend’s abusive relationship.

Liv’s work was quite different coming from the Slam tradition of public, performative pieces around the 3-minute length. She began with a welcoming poem inspired by Shel Silverstein, with an opening call-&-response with the audience “I will speak” & accompanied by her brother Elijah McKee on alto sax. He joined her later in the program for an homage to her grandmother “Poem for Her Anecdotes.” Of course, a number of her pieces were political/social commentary, such as “My Friend Who Called Herself a Great & Dark Irony” inspired by her travels in Israel & Palestine, the cutting “Letter to the Easy Riding Earth Mama Hippie Man who is Still Racist,” & a piece combining her reaction to the UAlbany women convicted of falsely reporting an incident with a dream. These were punctuated by some haikus on politics, love & satire, including "Haiku for Mike Pence."  She ended appropriately enough with piece on her early ballet training then learning to dance free.
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The final Poets in the Park reading on July 29 once again featured 2 US military veterans, Suzanne Rancourt & Richard Levine. I had had the pleasure of reading with both Suzanne & Richard last Fall at the Bright Hills Literary Center in Treadwell, NY for a program of readings by veterans, “Writing War & Peace.”

Suzanne began with reading some poems from Billboard in the Clouds (Curbstone Books, 2004), first “Whose Mouth Do I Speak With?” a tale of her Dad bringing them “spruce gum,” the sap of trees to chew on, then “A Light Wind Beyond Temple” for Denise Levertov who lived down the road from Suzanne’s family home in Temple, Maine. Suzanne’s introductions helped set the stage for her poems, giving us a context. She then read from a manuscript currently making the rounds of publishers, “Murmurs at the Gate,” memories of her upbringing in a poor, hard-working rural environment, including “The Viewing” a memory of a men killing bears, then “Opening” where a box contains memories of a relationship, & a magical portrait of Raven “The Darkest Spot is Light.” She ended with a poem on her obsession with fabric, weaving as an image & metaphor for time & for love.

The city sounds of sirens, traffic, even helicopters heading for Albany Med are a part of the ambiance of Poets in the Park, but worked especially well for Richard, who began with a cluster of city poem set in Brooklyn, “Bread” a memoir of his grandfather, then the early TV “Saturday Night Fights” (sponsored by Gillette) about his father as a boxer & Richard’s own fight, then a tribute to musician Tito Puente, “Para Ti, Tito,” & a descriptive piece late night in the City “Quiet the Way.” Then on to some love poems: “Ever Guilty,” “Portraits of Unrequited Love,” & “Without Angles.” He followed that up with a few war poems: the grim “Field Bandage,” “Just Sleeping,” & one of my favorites “Convoys” a chilling tale of being out drinking in Brooklyn with buddies mixed in with memories of VN ghost soldiers. He ended with the short love poem “Fall,” & “Harvest” a family poem, raking his garden.

More photos from Poets in the Park can be found at my Flickr! site.

Poets in the Park was sponsored by the Hudson Valley Writers Guild & the Poetry Motel Foundation, both ultimately supported by the generosity of local writers & readers — “Give us your tired dollars, your millions crying for poetry.”

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