Armed with poetry

Last weekend, I spent a day with the AWP.

Friday afternoon, I drove through sleet and farm country to a train station smaller than the train —six feet of baking heat behind glass, four wet benches, a patch of parking, and long lines of mountains. And I got on the train and got off in Grand Central.

My sister gave me most of the floor in her dorm room to sleep on, and half a sandwich at her favorite café, and a ticket to Rock and Roll, the new Stoppard play. It’s Czechoslovakia in the 1960’s right after the tanks went through. The narrative feels like a playlist deliberately at times, a series of short, scored scenes. Music tells the story and moves the plot; people betray for it, risk arrest for it, talk with it, learn indifference from it and let it move them to protective kindness and courage and passion.

And the play feels feels — contemporary. The hippies are outgunned and scared. Communism is not always unsympathetic, but it is inefficient and cold. And the narrative follows two stories in two places, among a crowd of people, across two generations. One actress plays a wife in act one and her grown daughter in act two. How many novels can you name that use that structure, a crowd of characters and a hundred years? Middlesex; Little, Big; A Hundred Years of Solitude….

I have a theory about the modern passion for writing novels across generations. Most novels want some kind of hope of continuity or union — most novels have both comic and tragic structure, things falling apart and things coming together. The early novelists had humanism and heaven and clan kinship and the family name, kinds of continuity that America manages to deny a lot of the time. But we do still have children.

I started out to write this post about poetry. A lot of Stoppard qualifies, at that. I’ll never forget the night I saw Indian InkLike Radha, most beautiful of the herdswomen, undressed for love in an empty house. But I did also, on this Saturday, hear poetry and prose beautifully read. Here’s a sampling.

Robert Boswell opened a panel on mystery. He told us how he and two friends chose to recognize their thirtieth birthdays: they hiked up a mountain with a cooler of beer and photographs, letters, professional books, things that smelled of their youth — and they made a bonfire, and they took turns letting go.

And then he asked us how a story could become a transformation. I thought this panel would talk about plot, and instead it talked about pain, and unalterable movement, and times when you can’t go home again.

Four poets from the Split this Rock poetry festival livened up the morning. Martin Espada has been one of my favorite writers since he read to my high school — if only history were like your hands. Today, he reread a poem I had the luck to hear him read once before, a poem of praise — Alabanza!

Alabanza. Praise the cook with a shaven head
and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye,
a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo,
the harbor of pirates centuries ago….

A friend of mine once said that she loved his writing because it is so clear — it is simple the way an aerial on the balance beam looks simple, but it is written to make sense. And to be felt.

E. Ethelbert Miller, Alicia Ostraker and Alix Olin joined him. I mean to look them all up now. They read with open pleasure and anger, and they say what they say simply because they mean it, and they want you to hear it. Poetry can be clear and understandable without being easy.

Finally, though the day held tables and pamphlets and pages and masses of other brilliant people, I want to set down how glad I am that I ran into a colleague from my old writing program, and she took me along to a reading, and I heard Gerald Stern read, and six of his dearest friends tell stories to honor him.

How have I never heard his work before?

then, my knives all flashing, my hair all streaming,
my mother red with laughter, my father cupping
his left hand under his armpit, doing the dance
of old Ukraine, the sound of his skin half drum…

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2 Responses to “Armed with poetry”

  1. rbarenblat Says:

    I own most of Alicia Ostriker’s work and would be happy to lend some to you if you’d like. I’m about to review one of her books of Biblical criticism for Lilith magazine, actually. She read at Inkberry back in the early days, and taught a midrash workshop — we wrote about it after the fact here.

    Come to think of it, Alix Ohlin read with Inkberry, too — fiction, if memory serves; excellent stuff…

    I like your description of the train station at the start of your journey.

  2. springfarmalmanac Says:

    I took Alicia Ostraker’s workshop with you all — I remember your midrash, and the burning bush… it was a great day. I knew I knew Alix Olin’s name too, but I didn’t know from where! Inkberry gets some great people. You realize you had three out of those four poets? Not bad. 🙂

    I’d love to borrow Alicia’s poems from you.

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