Literature and Spoken Word Reading

With the Lizards and the Insects at Poetry Press Week

The line-up of poets on Saturday night for the 2015 Spring/Summer installment of Poetry Press Week boasted five distinct voices, each varied from content and style to presentation. Some read like excerpts from memoirs, musical lines recalling childhood lessons and revelations. Others were thrown like mysterious poetic darts, momentary thoughts and obscure observations following no perfectly arced trajectory before landing in the minds of audience members. I was sad to miss the first of two nights and can only report on Saturday.

I love the concept behind Poetry Press Week. Press and publishers converge to hear new works and to pick up poets they’d like to publish. And for the audience members who are simply there to listen, it can be transformative. For some, it can be like hearing a poem for the first time. The reader’s text is displayed on a screen for the audience. It is both a private and public experience all at once. The person reciting or performing the poem is not the poet but an expressive aid or conduit for the lines to pass through.

PPW is like a collective editing or revision phase, or dress rehearsal, but one which occurs after the poem is released from the hands of the poet and put into those of the readers and listeners. We can’t change the poem, but we experience it in a way that is tremendously different from simply reading it on a page.

Before the first performance, PPW C0-founders and Directors, Liz Mehl and Justin Rigamonti, swiftly welcomed everyone. Saturday was the second night of the two-day event. A moment of silence for the nine people murdered in Charleston followed the brief introduction. A screen displayed the nine names and then went white for a few moments, a blank illuminating white in the quiet room.

The previous December at PPW also included a moment of silence for Eric Garner, Michael Brown and the numerous names that surfaced last year as victims of racially motivated police brutality. In December the decision not to indict the officers responsible for Eric Garner’s death saw protests erupt across the country. Sitting there in another moment of silence did feel commonplace, part of the show. This cannot become the new normal and should not be “something we expect” while discussing Charleston.

Poet A.M. O’Malley opened the night with a poem in the form of a letter, written to her brother. On two screens providing the back-drop of the stage at North Portland’s Disjecta, chunky paragraphs of text project on one screen while yellow-stained sepia toned images and footage of barns and vacant valleys show on the other. Hobbit Madrone, a boy who appears to be about ten, sits on stage as Hajara Quinn reads O’Malley’s words off stage.

Her little brother was born with brain damage. Beginning the poem, O’Malley writes, “that night you were born in Chino Valley. That night the curly valley was a bowl of lizards.” All that moves in the images on screen are tree branches in a silent breeze and the boy on stage only moves his eyes as he occasionally surveys the audience. All is still otherwise and the effect is eerie. The poet reflects on the circumstances of her brother’s birth, the effect on him, her and their mother. “Curly valley” sticks with me throughout and the phrase is repeated again as the conditions of the birth entail complicated emotions and relationships. I see their lives twisting within this valley, with the lizards and the insects, in the day to day business of life, not sure of the difference between the burdens and blessings. Her mother has thrown out “decades of wishes” and near the end of the poem, the author pleads, “Dear Brother, give me all the possibility you got.” In a letter that maybe the brother was never meant to read, the unwinding of something once tortuous is allowed to breathe and air out, but the eerie quality is still there. There is this sense that any relief might be temporary within the walls of the bowl-like valley.

Next up were the poems of Robert Lashley, read by Sean Bowers. Bowers’ accent is hard to discern and as he reads the poems, it bares origins on the east coast, or the south, I am not sure exactly. I found him to be the most compelling performer of the night for this reason, as he embodies the various characters found in Lashley’s writing. His voice booms, preaches and softens up at times exuding both the serious and humorous aspects of the poetry. Blues music opened each poem, it was an effective piece of each performance and suggestive of sensuality.

Lashley’s poems flashed by too quickly for me. I could have gone to a show devoted to his work alone. His poems tell many stories and his presence within them is not always recognizable, except as a narrator. The emotion within comes from observation and his ability, and perhaps propensity, to stand beside, listen and watch. The titles of each work are precise descriptions: “Elders In Snake Lake, After A Shootout on 19th,” and “Uncle Washes His Niece’s Feet (After A Busted Wedding)”. Under such headlines, excerpts of ongoing stories and history are revealed. In “Why Uncle Moe Used The Washboard After Big Momma Got A Kenmore” Lashley writes:

a self same baptism
in the grain of the washing powder
and wood parallel to the machine.
“I will understand it better, by and by.”

I was drawn in for nothing so specific as to just participate in Lashley’s experience, a curiosity for what he makes of everything he sees. This is a galvanizing and awesome tool of a poet and what makes you want to read them. Certain details of life’s moments, objects, and people are illuminated by the poet’s unique sensibilities. What often doesn’t concern people or goes unnoticed finds pause in a poem, an unknowing subject falls into the hands of someone who can’t help but pay attention.

“Against Reading” was the first poem by the night’s third poet, Andrea Hollander. “Not reading exactly but reading too much into what people say, what they do” opens up the poem. A man with curly hair and glasses reads the lines. He is Brooke Budy and not only is he performing the poems but his artwork is projected on the screen behind him as a visual accompaniment. The paintings are minimal; simple lines and colors portray the image of someone reading a poem. They are fitting to Hollander’s work as her style is simple, her words are far from cryptic and as he read the poem, I found myself not searching for meaning, but nodding with clarification, hearing the poem as if I was in a conversation with the poet.

Brooke Budy's art hanging in Disjecta's gallery
Brooke Budy’s art hanging in Disjecta’s gallery

“Against Reading” is about the assumptions we all make when interpreting the behavior of others as having something to do with us. She uses the examples of your mother shutting a book when you walk in the room, or your wife quickly hanging up the phone upon your arrival to illustrate her final message which comes in a sharp last line. Budy’s steady and firm delivery and the words themselves are like a slightly hard, startling but encouraging pat on the back. Hollander writes, “Not everything is done with you in mind.”

After intermission, Stacey Tran’s poem begins without introduction. It was a bit confusing because the beginning of her poem starts with layered recorded readings. As people are just getting back to their seats after spending intermission in Disjecta’s sloping courtyard, what sounds like four girls’ voices are filling the room in a soft disorienting chorus. There were a few sound and visual slide glitches throughout the night so at first, my suspicion was that this poem was enduring another.

In addition, the performance of Tran’s one poem, “I can’t call it that,” consists of three woman interacting with something that looks and moves like a grounded parachute one by one. This started immediately so paired with the unannounced start and the confusing recordings, there was a delay in becoming acquainted with the visual performance and how everything tied together.

Alas, the force of the words and format were powerful and moved me to regain my focus. As the performers swirled with the prop, laid on top of it or maneuvered around it, my attention moved away from them to the text on screen. Two or three-word lines present struggle, observation, internal and external occurrences. Arranged alongside this are even less decorated, italicized lines, so that it appears like two poems next to one another.  A second voice read the italicized lines. In the middle of “I can’t call it that” reads:

Summer of vanilla Volvos
I pet your cat
people cried
Sky absorbed
fear slid between
gaps of time
tape decks

Directly next to this are the following phrases, presented as two lines: “still feeling too young, to fly across the world.”

It looks like two poems running at the same time but it is not. Rather it’s like that second voice we all have sometimes, that isn’t connected or aware of the first. There is no doubt or argument in the italics aimed or caused by the first column of words. It’s a separate thought, and the thought that there is no relationship between the two sets of words other than occurring at the same time is an interesting one. It makes you think about the parallel, unrelated thoughts traversing through your mind at any given time and if it all connects in some way.

Capping the night were the poems of Timmy Straw delivered by a few performers and recorded readings. The first poem, “California,” starts after our performer has ripped a banana from a bunch, peels it, and takes a bite while stepping up to the mic:

In California,
Where you were born
Like a boy putting olives on his father’s fingers,
Finance is an ocean
A pristine beardless tide,
I recognize nothing it washes in,
Though together, America
We form its moon

Straw’s poems makes me think of music, and the easy way Kerouac had bringing the sights and noise of an entire city, or street block to the minds of anyone who read or listened to him as if they were standing right in it. Straw’s poems reach out in a similar way. They are not difficult, and they refrain from dwelling in places for too long. A saxophone was played in the background for one poem, and for another, a tall older man who recited the words, circled the stage in heavy boots that sounded like unsteady, whimsical drums on the stage. This presentation incorporates the scope of her work. Each line easily connects with the next, lyrically and visually, however scattered or unrelated the content seems. The patterns in her work brought to mind for me how poetry tends to be esoteric or mystifying. I didn’t feel that way here. Straw comes across as unconcerned with being clever, driven by a natural need to capture something.

Poetry Press Week is a two night event, and I regret not being able to attend Friday night’s performance. Carl Adamshick’s poetry was featured and he was also a part of last December’s Poetry Press Week, which left me invigorated for a week afterwards, jotting down scrappy poems on napkins. But mostly, I realized the importance of being present for the duration of a festival to get the full scope of it. On Saturday night, I felt like I was missing something, like I walked in on the middle of something. I found myself wanting more and I couldn’t discern whether the absence I was sensing was due to the show’s strange rushed feel, the short introductions of the night or the fact that I had missed Friday. Last year’s PPW was an unforgettable, close the streets, light the fireworks spectacle of a poetry reading; this time around was different.

This event isn’t rightfully experienced in one of two nights, you got to make it to both. I won’t make that mistake again.

By Kathleen Dolan

I studied writing and English at Purchase College in NY State and graduated from PSU with an English degree. I contribute content, edit, and brainstorm at THRU.

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