It was a charming and intimate gathering in the downstairs wine bar of L’Osteria 57 tonight. Despite a moving van scheduled to show up at our door all too early tomorrow morning (and packing left to go!), I’m really glad that I made it out on a rainy London night to meet up with fellow poets and poetry lovers and read a few poems.
Ivy Alvarez read poems about both classical and contemporary violence, Collin Kelley read a range of humorous and poignant pieces in his striking Southern accent, Agnes Meadows read almost-love poems and paeans to womanhood, and Karen Head read a mix of revised Southern Gothics and down-but-not-out Parisian poems. The atmosphere was cheerful and inviting–so warm I had to take my jumper off by the end (it is, after all, supposed to be summer here).
Many thanks to Collin for inviting me, and Agnes for organising the evening. It was delight from start to finish.
“A poem is a provisional darning across that [psychic] tear.”
Behind Jane Hirshfield, drizzle smeared the windows framing London’s icons to make an impressionist painting. She read generously from new work and old standards, and even revealed some personal detail when asked about the significance of a particular poem in the Q&A. Though myself a former Berkeleyite, I had never heard her read in person. How marvelous to encounter her six thousand miles away. Though confident and grounded, she seemed to be appreciating the poetry alongside us, rather than reinforcing the fourth wall.
In her writing process, Jane embraces negative capability, transience and paradox. For her poetry, like Zen, is about eschewing shorthand categories and embracing the moment with keen observation. Though encompassing, and often wildly associative, the work always seems sure-footed–braiding narrative and philosophy, imagery and music–and always lands in interesting territory, often far from the starting point. Increasingly political, her poems never forget to “tell it slant”, and that poetry always wins out over rhetoric for the purpose of expanding the mind.
What lovely wounds and beautiful scars; what wholeness she weaves from fleeting threads–a magnificent magpie poet, gentle spirit and kindhearted kin.
Visas can be tricky things. At the start of last night’s reading, it was announced that Nikola Madzirov might not be able to attend. There had been trouble getting the British Consulate to return his non-EU visa to him during his tour of South America, and his plane had only touched down minutes before the programme began. It all lay in the hands of immigration, customs and–worst of all–London traffic as to whether he would show up in time to read at all.
The programme was designed to intersperse British poets with continental European voices, in hopes of overcoming some of the “ossification” of British perceptions of European poetry. Indeed, it was the Europeans I found most vital and captivating, and upon them I will focus for now.
Swiss poet Daniele Pantano read from his “undergraduate” work in honour of his own undergraduate students making the trip out to see him. He spoke of his time in suburban America as an “exile”, which he defined as “a city reared by eternal artifice.” His most striking work revolved around his mother’s suicide and the haunt of Nazism in Europe. Continue reading →
“Many of us became writers because we were silenced in some way, and the written self on the page speaks more authentically than we do as individuals”
-Polly Clark, “Speaking the Poem’s Voice” from Magma Poetry 52
The Troubadour is a small cafe in Earls Court with a basement stage that played host to the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in their day. Last night, I squirmed my way through the crowd and took to the glossy black stage to read a poem as part of the launch of Magma Poetry 52. The standard of poetry, and audience–both quality of attention and sheer numbers–was remarkable. Unlike readings I have attended in America, where often the audience is composed mostly of poets and their friends, the crowd that assembles fortnightly in this cultural dungeon seems deeply committed to taking in poetry as a way of life.
Perhaps in a culture where one often does not say quite what one means in polite company, poetry serves an even more necessary function, propelled forward by two equally intense desires: to expresss authentically, but resist sentimentality. Poetry, then, speaks for those who gathered last night from all walks of life and crowded around tables like a rush-hour train, hoping to be taken somewhere wonderful. I was. And I am grateful to those who planned it, those who read, and those who listened for making last night something special.
Readers will know I don’t generally consider myself a long poem poet. At the T.S. Eliot Shortlist Reading last weekend, Sean O’Brien remarked that one of the most dreaded phrases in a poetry reading is (said darkly), “and now for something longer.” Recalling this, I descended the stairs of the brutalist Barbican Theater into the music library, recalling the Vogon dungeon from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in which the protagonist is forced to listen to the “third worst poetry in the universe” as torture.
Fortunately, owing to great variety, imagination, and craft, the evening was anything but a Vogon experience. I was pleased to read my own poem, “In Pieces”, after The Lewis Chessmen, alongside nearly a dozen others. Continue reading →
I made my way down to Kentish Town this evening to hear four members of The Highgate Poets read their work. As a newly-accepted member of the group, I was treated to a brief history lesson about the venue by coordinator Anne Ballard before the evening got underway. It turns out that Torriano House is synonymous with Hungarian Anarcho-Communist Poet John Rety, who founded and ran it as a centre of poetry and social change in North London for many years before his death.
The open reading portion of the evening was just as eclectic as those I had attended in California. The flavour, though, was different. Two older gentlemen sang folk songs a cappella. Themes of opera, atheism, and of course anti-war sentiment peppered the poems from the floor. David Floyd promoted his new pamphlet entitled “Protest.” The walls were lined with ink drawings depicting the horrors associated with capitalist greed for oil. And at the back table, a periodical called Peace News replaced what had typically been promoted at Torriano House–The Daily Worker.
I recently attended my first poetry reading since moving to London, and wrote about the experience for the Silk Road Review Blog:
As I travelled by tube to the Southbank Centre to attend the first event of the London Literature Festival, and my first poetry reading since moving to London two months ago, I took with me my American expectations about poetry venues: coffee shops, small community centers, the occasional well-appointed-but-out-of-the way theater or library hall. Seated facing the podium on the sixth floor of this clean, bright temple to art, I kept examining the layers of the backdrop as if it were a painting. First, a Union Jack. Then the London Eye. And on the far side of the Thames, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. This was not a painting, however, but a window. The statement was clear: art, and for this evening, poetry, commands a central place in Britain. However, centrality means anything but homogeneity, as the four readers in this “Poetry of Place” event demonstrated.
“The distant reality every day questions me / like an unknown traveler who wakes me up in the middle of the journey / saying ‘Is this the right bus?’, / and I answer ‘Yes’, but I mean ‘I don’t know.’”
-Nikola Madzirov, “I Don’t Know”
Bergamot Station at night / Photo: Marvin Rand
It was with great excitement that I drove down to Frank Pictures Gallery in Bergamont Station to read poems alongside Tim Green, Nikola Madzirov, and Ilya Kaminsky last night. It is always a privilege to read alongside first-rate poets, but last night was something truly special. It was one of the final readings in the “Third Area” series to be held in this gallery, and my final reading in America before Val and I move to London.
But more than this, the lineup was particularly special to me. I was slated to read with Tim Green at the Carnegie Art Museum last year, but it ended up being too close to the due date of his new baby daughter. He read poems from American Fractal as well as some new work. Tim has been a great supporter of my own work, giving it exposure through Rattle, and is himself a fine poet–sonorous and absorbed when he reads, self-deprecating and down-to-earth in between.
Then I was introduced to the work of Macedonian poet Nikola Madzirov, available now in English thanks to BOA editions and the Lannan Translations Selection Series. His poems took my breath away. In them, I found many of the elements of what I admire most about other Slavic-language poets, especially those far to the north in Poland–sensitive, clever observations, at times whimsical, but always with a deep undercurrent of existential longing. Continue reading →
The following poem received an honorable mention in the 2008 Rattle Poetry Prize, and appeared in Rattle #30 in the winter of that year. While the text and an audio recording of me reading this poem are available on the Rattle website, this is the first time me reading this poem has appeared in a video. Special thanks to Charles McDonald for filming that night.
One day, this poem came to me. I was nervous at first to share it with them. But they told me that they read it over and over in private. On that night, I read it to them in person for the first time. Needless to say it was difficult to keep reading through strong feelings. Kevin Wallace, director of the Center, videotaped the evening, and captured this moment.
Last night’s reading at the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, as part of the Santa Barbara Poetry Series, was a delicious immersion in art. The Forum is a small but well-appointed gallery bedecked with shockingly good contemporary art. Accomplished flautist Stephanie J. Miller played interesting excerpts from a wide range of repertoire before and after the reading, and during intermission. A little wine and chocolate completed the mood, as the more bohemian side of Santa Barbara mingled and munched, sipping well-chosen words.
Glenna Luschei read from her two most recent collections, Salt Lick and Witch Dance, the latter of which is dedicated to the memory of her husband. Her poems are casually observational, but while the themes are clearly cohesive, no line could be predicted on the basis of the previous line. Her poems thereby give voice to the workings of a truly unique turn of mind. There is no one quite like her.
Dan Gerber gave a tribute to Barry Spacks, and to the dignity and integrity with which he has become an elder poet in the community. Dan’s work is deep, spare, with often haiku-like intensity and grace. Not without wit, he also read a poem dedicated to the many ticks that have taken communion at his expense. It seems to me we were all nourished that night by some small amount of blood from Dan Gerber’s heart. Continue reading →