Monday, April 25, 2011

A Critique of Pure Readings

One of my favorite poetry readings is the Third Thursday at Forza Coffee Company in Westminster, Colorado. We always have a full house of poets reading to other poets, their spouses and close friends. We usually have a featured reader, who gets three times the time alloted to the open-mic folks. Most of us are open-mic folks. We don't get screened or selected. We show up, we rustle pages, we read two or three poems. This is the most common sort of poetry reading, I think.

I could be wrong. It could be that more people attend a celebrity reading, where one well-known poet reads from her/his newest book and offers a few new pieces. The audience is attentive, there because they know or want to know the poet as a living, breathing voice in the dark. Well, the audience is in the dark, the poet usually well lighted, miked and amped. After the reading comes the selling and signing of books in the lobby or the back of the room. Fans gather and shake hands, gush a bit, then go off to eat enchiladas or home to browse their new books and wonder if there is room on the shelf for this one.

When David Mason, Colorado's Poet Laureate, and his reading buddy, David Rothman, read in Broomfield a couple of weeks ago, they morphed the celebrity reading into a hybrid. Mason talked a lot about poetry, about the origin and function of the laureate and about poets as part of community. I liked it, but a couple of people said afterward that they were taken by surprise, not entirely comfortable with the format, which felt to them like a college class with poems sprinkled in for relief. However, poetry and poets often unsettle us, refuse to fit our expectations, ruffle our feelings like a stiff wind in the mind.

On Saturday I heard, at last, Ernesto Cardenal read in Boulder at Innisfree Books. The room was packed. The reading opened with a song in Spanish by a talented woman, whose name I have sadly lost. Cardenal read in his native Spanish, while a translator by his side handled the English. In many ways, this was what I expected. What unsettled and surprised me was the poet's continued vitality and fresh work at the age of 86. His presence eroded the concept of doddering old men trading fame for admiration. He's a working poet, still wrestling with the truth, often pinning it to the mat and walking away unscathed. Ole! Bravo!

Monday, April 18, 2011

My Top Forty

A conversation this weekend with another poet has me thinking about whose work I've learned from and loved or respected. So, in more or less random order, I'd want a "desert island book" that includes poems by each of these American poets:

Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Maryann Moore, Amy Lowell, Mina Loy, Robinson Jeffers, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stephens, Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, Robert Creeley, Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Denise Levertov, Robert Hayden, Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, Louis Simpson, James Wright, Theodore Roethke, William Stafford, John Ashbury, Marge Piercy, Maxine Kumin, Pattiann Rogers, Gary Snyder, Rita Dove, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser, Billy Collins, and Charles Simic.

This list is completely subjective, and I could make another list of poets from around the world. I'd love to hear suggestions about other people's favorites, most necessary, etc. Limiting my choices to 40 made me think hard about whose work matters most to me. At this moment, in this place, with my limited brain and resources, this is my A list.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ernesto Cardenal

At a poetry reading last week in Boulder, I thought I was hearing an April Fool's line. The owner of Innisfree Books, Brian, announced that Saturday afternoon, April 23rd, Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal would read at the bookstore. My jaw dropped and I challenged Brian: "THE Cardenal?"
 Brian smiled and nodded. The first break in the reading I swiveled through the audience to Brian. Did he really mean it? Yes, really. Did he have a bilingual collection of Cardenal's poems? Yes, just one, although he had a number in English. I had a twenty-dollar bill in my wallet, meant to be my mad money for the weekend, but I'm mad about Cardenal's poetry, so Brian got the twenty, I got some change and a copy of Flights of Victory / Vuelos de victoria. I've carried it with me since then, challenged to read as much of the Spanish as I can before glancing right to the translation.

My excitement over this find is two fold. I like the poems for their exteriorismo, what the introduction explains as poetry made of "narrative and anecdote, made with elements of real life and with concrete things, with proper names and precise details and exact data . . ." And I admire and respect Cardenal for his bravery and his concern for his people. He says in "Canto nacional" that "From the womb of the oppressed the Revolution will be born. / It is the process." This sort of statement is made more powerful by Cardenal's active involvement in the revolution that freed Nicaragua from the dictatorship of Somoza. This is political poetry with teeth. He's earned his right to speak on national issues. He's wise enough to express these ideas through concrete images--men and boys who left home for work or an errand and never came back, mothers and lovers left with only a picture of their sons and husbands. This poetry tells a tragic truth, and I cannot help but almost hold my breath till the 23rd. (I'll post the details on the News page at

Friday, April 1, 2011

Poets in the Cellar

Last evening four friends carpooled to Denver, got lost, got lost again after asking a police officer for directions, almost got sideswiped by an impatient lane changer, all for the love of hearing poetry read live. And what else did this foursome get in return?

They got shuffled right through a pleasant coffee house, past the folds of a thick curtain, down dimly lit stairs with things wrapped around the handrail so they couldn't hold on, and into a low, cavernous cellar. The overhead pipes, ill disguised with gauze and mostly burned-out strings of old Christmas lights, were low enough that anyone taller than 5'10" was in danger of a head banging. In fact one of the foursome suffered just such an insult. The featured poets, three of them, read at a remove from the small audience, no mic, glaring lamp, and accompanied by the flush of running water from the bathrooms upstairs, where the non-poets sat with tea and a hookah, food, light, and good air. There was no food or drink service in the cellar. No, no, one had to navigate that stairwell again with drink in hand. The dingy atmosphere dampened the listeners, who rarely moved or spoke.

A good time was not had by all, at all. In fact, the four friends declared this a no-reading-here-in-the-future zone. It was an illustration of what's wrong with American poetry. It's relegated to the cellar.