Reading at the Royal Academy

Robert Peake reads at the Royal AcademyLast night I participated in a truly unique poetry reading sponsored by Ekphrasis. A dozen of us poets dispersed ourselves amongst installations in the Sensing Spaces architectural exhibit at the Royal Academy. As patrons wandered through the exhibits, we read poems to them, which we had written in response to these very spaces.

It was challenging. Bursting into poetry as the spirit moved me felt a bit like trying to be a one-man flashmob. Having never done any busking, I was unaccustomed to people wandering into or out of a room while I was reading a poem. Based on their responses, I think it was challenging, too, for the patrons. I saw many a bemused and bewildered smile.

Often, when we encounter something surprising like a provocative art installation, we seek guidance — in the placards on the walls, or the words of a knowledgeable guide. Yet we poets were the opposite of guides — raising yet more questions in response to their questions, bringing our own thoughts, music, and imagery to bear. The patrons were therefore simultaneously experiencing their own responses to the installations, and responding to ours. Challenging, indeed.
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Suzanne Lummis and Lynn Emanuel at the Ruskin

I made my way back in to Los Angeles tonight to hear Suzanne Lummis and Lynn Emanuel read at The Ruskin Art Club. Suzanne is always endearingly self-effacing and charming. She also really knows how to engage with an audience. Strangely, many have labeled her a performance poet for this reason when, in fact, I think she simply embodies all the right elements of an outstanding straight-up reading. She connects with each line of the poem, brings life to it without seeming artificial — all through her voice, each word clearly expressed but not curt or strained. She simply reads poems very well.

And what poems — an abundance of new work in her signature noir yet self-aware style. She seduces an audience into thinking they are getting entertainment — often with moments of humor, irony, and wit — but in the end her work always delivers art. She also read some timeless mainstays from her book In Danger. I am glad Val, who came with me, got to finally hear them. And I’m glad, of course, she came with me and made the ninety minute drive each way a stimulating delight.

Lynn Emanuel also read some of her most well-known works, including “White Dress” and “Blonde Bombshell”, which apparently Garrison Keillor has read in honor of Marilyn Monroe’s birthday. Her other work, from her newest book, is a significant departure from these more accessible poems with broad appeal. She attempts to investigate the relationship between reader and writer, between aspects of the mind and emotions, in dark, spare, strange, metapoetic works.

I finally got to learn about and experience a bit of the venerable Ruskin Art Club, which is reviving itself as a champion of the arts in Los Angeles. After the reading, I met up with two of my former classmates from Suzanne’s master class. It’s been about four years. Kathleen Tyler has just published his first book of poems, The Secret Box, and Jawanza Dumisani is circulating his second book to a select few publishers. He introduced me to a young poet who won a scholarship from The World Stage to study with Suzanne. It was heartening to hear that Jawanza is still hosting the writers workshop there each week, in the heart of the city, working to support the community and to provide opportunities for promising young poets.

We made our way home through considerable fog. It seems autumn has arrived in Southern California.

The Invitation-Only Party That Is Poetry Today

Thanks to dumbfoundry for pointing out this excellent article on the sad state of elitism into which poetry has sunk today. It’s a pithy little piece that plays fast and loose with history, but it is the closest hammer I’ve yet seen to hitting the nail on the head. My wife Valerie dedicated her life to an art form equally plagued with the same quandary of elitism that causes it to be marginalized: classical music. Such elitism in both worlds presents a double bind: write (or compose) in an accessible way, and you are considered a traitor and booted from the inner circle of intelligentsia with the words “pop culture” taped to your back; yet at the same time neither art in its current state can thrive. Record sales plummet; interest in contemporary poetics has been in a tailspin for decades. It takes great courage to face the insecure mob of postmodern aesthetes that currently have a stranglehold on certain strata of po-biz on one hand, and the star struck pop culture performance poetry lovers on the other hand — to stay a true course toward meaningful art. Perhaps now more than any other time has the challenge of artistic integrity presented itself so forcefully in the medium of poetry. Yet now more than ever are those alienated from poetry deep down desperate for the kind of meaningful experience that a poem written with both the heart and mind, fully engaged, can provide.