Poetry is the New Black

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Poetry Press Week 2014 at Disjecta

Imagine a small, dark stage. In the center, there is a child’s bed and floor lamp. Two screens serve as the backdrop. On one, a black and white sky of furiously undulating clouds is projected, looking like the turbulent water of two whirlpools at odds, swirling in two directions. On the other, a brief death notice dated from 1984 reads the news of two children killed in a car accident on I-84, after rocks came loose and fell to the highway. The last line informs that a third child in the car survived.

A little girl comes on stage with a book, flips on the lamp and sits on the bed. She eats an apple. I crane my neck to get a better view of her in the lamp spotlight, but really, the sense of sight is not enticed here as much as that of sound. We are silent in the audience and hear each bite, the crisp, wet crunches as she slowly chews. There is a bit of time before anything else happens, 3 minutes or so.  When a poem replaces the obituary on one of the screens, the little girl begins to read a poem from the book on her lap.

“Your eyes shut to the window’s fog / I don’t know you anymore.” The little girl’s voice is sweet. “It’s my birthday. A birthday / a death day”. You imagine her in a car some indefinite time later, on I-84 riding below the forest and cliff faces, not recalling the details of the accident, but remembering the children the way a child would. She goes to a place where she finds apples, talks about the different kinds. She can’t eat the green ones anymore. Then she says of the others, “for you I eat them in the sun.”

She is not the poet. The poet sits in the audience. This is Poetry Press Week 2014 held this past weekend at Disjecta in North Portland. It’s an event modeled after Fashion Week and although this is its 3rd season, the innovative format makes it feel completely fresh and novel. The idea here is for the poems to be read by “models” of the poet’s choosing and to be read or performed in ways representative of the poem’s themes.  With the poets in the audience, there are publishers and members of the press, and plenty of poetry lovers and curious folks packing the rest of the room. The show’s hosts and founders, Liz Mehl and Justin Rigamonti, introduce the event explaining that the poems read tonight are available to be picked up for publication as quickly as “5 minutes after the show.”

This is a two day event featuring brand new work from twelve poets. The poets don’t walk down a catwalk at the end, lavished in flashing camera lights, draped in the bony limbs of their adoring, sharp cheek-boned fashion models. But the stage here at Disjecta does jut out a few feet creating a raised walkway around which the poets sit. And they watch as their words are displayed and performed by someone else.

The experimental format is compelling on a few levels. The premise of the poems being tried on like clothes is cool, like, “Would I wear that? Can I try on that experience?” Performing the poems, the models are peeking through the sheer veil of words and ultimately inhabiting the poem, creating this first impression. And then extending the opportunity to the audience to see the poem in a different way. It’s a whole new way to interpret interpretation. And of poetry, which is already a craft so open and conducive to extensive interpretation!

I am curious about the publishers in the audience and the business of poetry. How will they base their selections? How will these manifestations of a poem determine their choices, as it will presumably be presented in the typical text format on the page in a book? The poets themselves, the designers and seamstresses of the lines and stanzas, will they discover new things about their work?

On to the nights’ poems. Imagine a catwalk for these words to walk down; some strut, some sway, some are sweet and subtle. Some are unsettling. Some are skimpy in the less is more way. Others move with force like warriors and shining beacons, illuminating the crowd. Others are simply on fire.

The poem about the car accident is one of three poems by Brandi Katherine Hererra, all performed by the little girl, entitled “10/5”, “11/5” and “2/18”. Maybe it’s due to the suspense that mounted as the audience sat in silence, the ghostly images on the screen, or the little girl herself, a low side ponytail pulling her sun-colored blond hair straight across her forehead, but the poem is imbued with an eeriness that bolsters the subject. As she reads, however, in a soft and honest voice from the unsmiling face of innocence, an intact innocence that holds a mature sadness, a poem about the complicated emotions of dealing with death and loss is rendered completely pure.

Friday

Hererra’s work served as the finale of the event, the last of the twelve to go on Saturday night. The event began with Carl Adamshick’s poems on Friday night, read by a man in his late 20s or early 30s in a neat button-up shirt and glasses, sitting with his elbows resting on a table, a book in front of him. I imagine him in his room alone, this is how he would look reading privately. Except beside him sits an older woman, his mother, who reclines in a chair facing him so her profile faces us. She is in a sweater, her hands on her lap, attentive to her son. She doesn’t speak but watches him with a calm expression. His poems explore the memories of his mother’s illness and death, the long car ride with his brother after the funeral. All of the poems in the event are projected on the backdrop screens so we can all read along. With the visual aid of the setting, the sight of the young man and his mother, the poem takes on a very private quality, even in a public appearance on stage.

The poems of Sara June Woods follow. On one of the screens there is a beach scene, waves crashing and a hazy silhouette of a person imposed upon the image. Three models read three poems projected on the other screen. It’s busy; there is a lot to take in here between the models, the poems, and the changing images on the screen. Even on a page, the poem is one that I would have to read more than once in a sitting. Specific lines stand out for which I can’t remember the context but they linger nonetheless. “Leg deep in old sunshine” and “I am a trash bag of roses.”  On the screens as these lines are read, are images of power lines against the sky, at dawn or dusk, a time of day when the light is golden and over-lapping clouds appear like they’re veiling some other worldly kingdom.

Sara Woods' poems read by three models

Sara June Woods’ poems read by three models

The second model, a young woman, reads the poems as if she was dreaming them up right there. She nods, and pleads, and when she reads lines like, “You’re a cat, and I’m a girl, and that’s ok. That’s everything”, she gives the poem a genuine assurance. The poem seems written for her, like when you see a model on whom a dress falls flawlessly, accentuating distinct curves and baring flesh where the shadows cast a mysterious allure. Again, when the third model reads the third poem which begins, “I am made of smoke today”, her own voice is dreamy and distant and suits the tone.

The poems of John Brehm are bare and minimal. And they are delivered in the same way. No props or backdrop film. The man and woman reading are funny, smart and straightforward. They speak in both French and English. The performance has a formidable and clever style. I want to read much more of Brehm’s, as some lines are still drifting around my mind days later. I’m reluctant to let go of them like the thoughts of the first few smiles or words exchanged on a really good first date. He is wistful in the poem, “Back Then”, as he writes, “Everything was better back then / Even my nostalgia was better back then”. The poem, “In Brooklyn”, offers a beautiful image as the poet’s hat is lifted off his head by the wind as he walks on the street, and he muses that it was as if the hat was lifted to let what was in his head out, and as he crosses the crosswalk, it lands back on his head. And I imagine him resuming his walk, less encumbered. Maybe even wearing the hat differently, like cocking it to the side.

Jessalyn Wakefield’s “mise-en-scene” is performed by her sister, wearing a white t-shirt with “Above Average” written on it in black marker, and tight gold leggings. She wears tall black heels which clonk on the stage as she shuffles and shimmies, delivering a lengthy poem she has fully memorized about being a woman, the existence of heaven and the ocean, and “tangerine sunsets”. “Inside the year there were spasms”, she begins in a voice reminiscent of Alicia Silverstone’s character in Clueless. She splays out on a lawn chair, kicks her feet in the air, and aloofly plays with a pink flamingo.  The stage glows in bubblegum pink light. My brother likes to say, of things he either can’t explain or understand but nonetheless felt the impact of, “it was a trip”. It is indeed a trip. She is great and magnetic, and I get this feeling that everyone in the audience is enjoying a happy blend of incredulity and fascination.

The next performance of the poem, “The Law of Improbability”, begins with these lines:

When Checkov said any gun brought into a story must be fired I assumed he was talking about fiction. This is the problem of the particular chicken and egg of imitation, of life, of moving to Manhattan with 4 dollars….

Of temping in music publishing…

Of not thinking of myself of either young or cute…

Of the old guy at the security desk, who thought my fear, no my implacable terror, of guns, was cute.  And that he could cure me by showing me just how safe they were…

Of my crossing the street away from policemen. Of my crossing the street to get away from their guns. Of my being black and all.

Of his being black and all…

Of its girth, if its power. Of its bullets of 38 calibers.

This poem of Samiya Bashir’s brings me back to the beginning of the event when the hosts paused to remember Eric Garner and Michael Brown in a moment of silence. It brings me back to the mornings this week reading the newspaper, back to downtown at the protests. I can’t speak for anyone else here but I feel safe saying I wasn’t alone. But we also can’t drift; the model, a striking African American woman, commands the present moment as she speaks this poem in a clear and firm voice, penetrating with a force more powerful than the ammunition of any weapon. “Of its girth, of its power. Of its bullets of 38 calibers,”  closer to the mic, she speaks these particular words, not muffled, just louder and fuller. And it reminds me that the current headlines don’t ring as news to so many; the fear and struggle has been endured for ages.

I look across the room, and observe the diversity, even here in Portland where our population is not so diverse. And I want to harness this energy, the appreciation for art and expression and believe in it as being, as Bashir writes of guns, “built for force”, strong enough when united to eradicate the violence and oppression. Bashir’s poems close this first night of Poetry Press Week and solidify my plan to return for the second program day.

Saturday

On Saturday night, Lisa Ciccarello’s poems are like quick, significant exchanges you can have with both lovers and strangers. She writes about intimacy and money. The model is a man dressed as a priest and reads the poems as if giving a sermon. He lights five candles before him using folded up dollar bills as he reads lines like, “when I touched you I became a loan” and the room starts to vaguely smell like burning money, a scent I do not recognize. “I love how you don’t understand how interest accrues / This is how ownership begins.” In the same poem she writes, “I don’t want to talk about the present / I just want to spend money like there is no afterlife.” She uses the word “bound” numerous times and the poems are ordained to us by the robed model. What is it that binds us? “I tried to love you but could live without you / this body is a promise I am bound to.” I will read more from Lisa Ciccarello.

“But I have so much to say!” responds the first line of a poem to its title, “A Poem Against Selfies.” This is one poem of a series by Jeff Alessandrelli entitled Poems Against Selfies, read by four models all wearing creepy, smiling masks, reading the poems from smart phones. These poems are funny, incisive, informative, and though there is a lot to look at on stage, between the four models either reading or snapping selfies, volume turned up so you can hear the snap of each shot, or the images of masked selfies on the screen, it‘s not disorienting. It allows for a comprehensive perception. “Selfies are the places you love because you lost the lease to them,” reads one of the models. Another describes a selfie as being representative of our moods, our continuously changing, self-absorbed desires and our tenuous relationships with them. “I want to fuck/read the serrated pixels of the naked torso.”

These are sarcastic and brash but thoughtful in the poet’s questioning of the idea of the self as it fits into this world and what we really know of ourselves. He uses words like “nest, swarm and hive” to describe the world of insects which the first poem explores as a narrative that looks completely different to that of human beings, one in which the concept of “I” doesn’t seem to exist.

The second to last poet’s work is presented in a way which takes to the experimental format most originally in its subtle challenge of the genre’s form. These are the poems of Jamalieh Haley. The experience is nothing like reading a poem on a page. The beginning of a poem is projected on the screen, with a toolbar at the top like on a home computer. The poems consist of forced pauses because all the words aren’t there yet. Like they haven’t been written yet and it is up to the audience to direct the course.

I’ll explain. The poems are projected on a screen but only a few lines at a time. One or two of the words are in blue, representing links to be clicked on. An arrow cursor clicks on the blue word and more lines appear. Sometimes there is only one blue word, and at others there are two. Which one to click? A model reads but does not do the navigating—that is done by someone else, an unseen mouse controller. Some people in the crowd call out their suggestions for which word to choose. The cursor circles the lines as if considering audience suggestions along with its own, and we wait. Sometimes the arrow flirtatiously bounces along the tops of the letters, playing the words like xylophones, stalling the unfolding of the poem.

I wonder if choosing one word over another will bring about a different line and change the fate of the poem. “Live your lonely second life / Your children keep practicing a tree when it rains” (practicing is in blue. We wait for the click) “This makes a tiny umbrella open inside of you / so you keep practicing joy when it rains” follows the click of the blue practicing. This is an intriguing way to present a poem especially because the format, the task of clicking links to move forward, is so familiar. We click on links all the time, to accept, to confirm, to purchase. It is challenging and alters the impression of the poem itself, as it comes to me now only in fragments and I think reading it on the page would produce a wholly different reaction.

This made me think of a book review I read recently in Slate magazine written by Sasha Weiss. Weiss reviews a novel by the poet Eileen Myles written about her time as a young writer in New York City. Weiss pulls a quote of Myles’ from the book on the performance of poems:

“I mean I would definitely say poetry is a very roundabout way to unite both work and time. A poet is a person with a very short attention span who actually decides to study it. To look. To draw that short thing out. It’s an old, feudal idea. Finally what you see is the thing you have in common with everyone else.”

There is value in just seeing a piece of a poem as something whole, as a poem within a poem. Poetry Press Week, plainly put, was an exceptional show. The poems will most likely find pages to live on but the performances were all the more extraordinary for their momentary existence. I look forward to the next one.




There are 4 comments

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  1. Katherine Herrera

    This was my first experience with Poetry Press Week and I enjoyed it tremendously! I am also Brandi Katherine Herrera’s Mom. I’ve read most of her poetry and have also seen a reading of the poem preformed that Saturday but in a different format. The earlier one was read by Brandi herself with a film showing on the wall behind her. It was wonderful as well but I really liked the impact that nine year old Sydney Graves brought to the performance of the poem. I look forward to coming to the event again next time!

  2. Jen Scholten

    Thank you for putting me in the audience with you. The imagery you provide teases so! I’m looking forward to checking the names of these poets off of my reading list. I would love to hear your favorites 🙂

    • Kathleen Dolan

      Thanks Jen! I’ve been enjoying your reviews and writing as well. The line-up at PPW was great and I recommend reading them all, but I will say Lisa Ciccarello, John Brehm and Coleman Stevenson (not mentioned in the review) were my favorites. I’m keeping an eye out for their next readings. I’ll let you know if I find anything. If so, we should go.


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