Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Best American Poetry, Live in New York City

I’ve come here on foot, through the rush hour’s living crowd. Hundreds of thousands of feet headed in all directions, tens of thousands crossing the Brooklyn Bridge (which looms above Brooklyn Ferry), many more shuffling their way to the subway, which spews me out on Astor Place.

When I arrive on 12th Street, at the New School auditorium, I find a half-dozen people in the 400-seat space. As the event—and it does feel like an event, an important one-off, a poetry fireworks show—draws closer, more people enter. There are maybe 50 in the room as we come within fifteen minutes of start time.

The Tishman Auditorium (named for one of New York City’s lordly developers) has walls and a ceiling like the inside of a giant clamshell. A modest opera production could be staged here, and in fact the evening, at least at this early point, has the dignified and semi-formal aura of a contemporary opening night of, say, La Boheme. I suspect that some of the people I’m watching are some of tonight’s poets. I half-recognize a few faces from my Facebook connections. In this I am probably like many of the more obscure poets on hand tonight. I have these tenuous connections to people famous only to people who care more about the wider world of poetry than about their local poetry scenes. I wish I had an illustrated program.

Members of this group enter like anyone else and sit in the first three rows, upon which the polite audience haven’t dared infringe. Among them are Lucie Brock-Broido, Mark Doty, Cornelius Eady (a poet-cum-R & B singer, whom I’ve met through mutual poet acquaintances and brought to our college to perform), Yusef Komunyakaa, Cate Marvin, Eileen Myles, Afaa Michael Weaver, and Sean Thomas Dougherty. Sean is both a natural poet and a poet who identifies (much of the time) with the town where he lives. He is also a friend and poet whose work I’ve been lucky enough to publish in the journal I co-edit, but I haven’t told him I’m attending. These leading lights are his first community now, the national poetic prominenti, and I’m guessing that, although he might want to, tonight he won’t be able to share the time and thoughts with anyone outside that circle, as he might on a slow summer night in Erie.

The house lights have come up, and now the audience is a legitimate crowd. They embody the oddity of a major poetry event. There is buzz, but it is subdued. Some of the people in attendance are true fans; some are aspiring national poets; some are curious passersby; and some are students whom professors have asked or bribed to come. In all they number now around 150. Set in front of black drapes, stage left of a podium and facing it an oblique angle, are two rows of high-end white plastic chairs. The anthology editor, David Lehman—himself an accomplished poet, as if often the case with anthology editors—appears and walks just in front of the stage, where he talks with some of the contributors. Lehman is an avuncular man in a suit and tie. He wears black horn-rimmed glasses, and smiles continually. Most of the poets are glamorous, attractive, well-dressed: put together. They look as though they belong in the celebrity culture of twenty-first-century New York City. A few of them, like Cate Marvin, Mark Doty and D. Nurkse, live within New York’s ambit, but many actually spend most of their time in less grand towns where they teach creative writing. In those and other hamlets more remote, the poets who show up to read at local venues often appear to be in the midst of the struggles they portray in their poetry. Of course, I’m generalizing, but I wonder how well we’ll come to know these readers. Will this be a case, as it often is on local scenes, of the reading as an affordable middle-class evening out? As a chance to connect with other poets? For tonight’s performers it can’t be only these possibilities. Selection for this anthology can make a respected poet a national poet, one who is invited to read and teach for good money and on a regular basis; one whose poetry will be read all around the country and, in some cases, around the world.

It’s after 7 p. m., the official start time, and by now the auditorium is filled, and the poets have taken their places. A quick look at them on stage reveals that this is a thoroughly middle-aged bunch: the youngest, Valzhyna Mort, is 33; and the eldest, Komunyakaa, 67. Lehman takes the mic, jokes with the audience, and discusses the history of the anthology back to its inception in 1988, mocking the assertion that poetry is a dying art. The poets smile along, making unheard quips from their white chairs. Many know one another from AWP conferences and the national workshop and reading circuits. Tonight they will, no doubt, break bread, share wine, and enjoy their status. Any group of poets in their spot should. In his introduction Lehman discusses both the news of his guest editor (Terrence Hayes), who has just been named a MacArthur Fellow, and the changes in the anthology (greater diversity and taboo content) over the years. Without much further ado, he introduces the first poet in the alphabetical list.1

As the program unfolds, its nature surprises me. A number of poets manifest the impact both of spoken word and of local scenes on our national poetry. Joel Dias-Porter, who reminds others that he is a. k. a. DJ Renegade, recites from under a backward, angled baseball cap the epitome of a jazz poem called “Elegy Indigo.” Smooth all the way through. Natalie Diaz follows him to a chorus of cheers from the audience. She intones her poem “These Hands, If Not Gods” in a classic spoken-word style. In Kangol and bling, Sean Thomas Dougherty takes the mic like a warrior, and chants “The Blues is a Verb,” a poem about East Cleveland, in which the poet’s street sensibility, eye for the detail of local life, and working-class loyalties are on full display. Before his reading begins, Ross Gay passes out figs to everyone in the audience. They are good purple figs—At least mine was sweet—that the audience eats without any apparent hesitation. If they can’t trust a poet, who can they trust? Gay seems to enjoy interacting with the audience as much as he seems to enjoy reading his playful, weighty poem “To a Fig Tree on 9th and Christian.” In his comfort at the podium, and in his rapport with the audience, he resembles any confident regular at a local coffee house. Le Hinton’s “No Doubt About It (I Gotta Get Another Hat)” is the second poem of the night to draw inspiration from an obscure poet’s life, in this case from the life of Baltimore poet named Chris Toll. Patrick Rosal reads a great performance piece entitled “You Cannot Go to the God of Love with Your Two Legs,” and before he does gives a big shout-out to New Jersey.

Most of the other poets on the bill are polished performers. Major Jackson deftly deadpans “OK Cupid,” a masterpiece of associative thought and a paragon of the list form often heard on the local stage. Mark Doty recalls Woody Allen, if Woody Allen were genuinely genteel and wrote poetry. He opens with a shtick about the poets’ screwing up the alphabetical order of performance, and segues into his equally funny poem, “Deep Lane.” Cornelius Eady nearly whispers his poems, as though he is sharing secrets with the audience. He is urbane and witty, and his poem “Overturned” smolders. Cate Marvin is a different story. A master of wry anger, as in her poem for this occasion, “An Etiquette for Eyes,” at 45 she’s a young master, and is deferential to the company. Dressed in black, looking the part of a super-sophisticated hipster, she delivers with confidence. (About the poem itself, I notice that it rhymes “you” and “blue” a lot, and that it rests upon many of the same techniques (internal or buried rhyme, for example) that I hear from skilled but unsung poets around the country.) In her prefatory comments, Valzhyna Mort returns to the idea that reports of poetry’s death have been exaggerated. “Every poet,” she declares, “is a bit of a necrophiliac,” so she’s glad poetry is a dying art. The concern for poetry’s demise is, it should be understood, a product of critical discourse and not a reality on the ground. These poets must know this, because most of them, most poets acclaimed and obscure, spend a significant amount of time on that ground, performing for small crowds in small communities. Mort is a native of Belarus, writing remarkable poems in English. Her poem tonight, “Sylt I,” demonstrates her tremendous skill and humor, and, like a number of these other “best” poems, shows that sly humor has become a staple of contemporary American poetry. Eileen Myles breezes through “Paint Me a Penis,” a clever poem about gender and sexuality. She is as self-assured as any poet on stage, and maybe as any poet could be. And with nine black poets looking on, a white poet, Jon Sands, performs with the ease of a winning politician a nonce-form poem about race and racial injustice. He performs it with such calm power that the several black male poets on stage, themselves masters of calmly powerful poems about race, exchange quizzical looks as Sands walks off. The moment and the presence of nine black poets among the evening’s twenty-four are another reminder of how black American (not just African American, but also Caribbean American) culture, which dominates the spoken word and hip-hop landscape, has shaped contemporary American poetry.

When the reading ends and Lehman dispenses thanks, the poets remain on the proscenium, shooting photos of each, of the audience, of themselves. The house lights rise. Members of the audience approach the poet-celebrities. I approach the stage to congratulate Sean. He tells me how nervous, how terrified of performing for this occasion he was, until he realized that he actually knew a few of the poets and had even read with one or two before. He also tells me that he needs a smoke. It’s been a long day of teaching and now taking notes, so I follow him out, to the sidewalk. On 12th Street we chat with passing well-wishers, performers and some of Sean’s old friends. I was wrong. No matter how national they might be now, he and the other poets have time to talk. This is how readings usually work. They are performances, but also gatherings of people who know each other well enough to share passions, to talk shop, to catch up, and now and then to lay the groundwork of serious relationships.

Next month Sean will read on another national stage, at the Dodge Poetry Festival, but life is calling him from glory. His long-time girlfriend is ill, and their young daughters need him around. He’s announced this current swing as a farewell tour. And he’s thinking of quitting the pool hall he manages, going for a full-time job as an instructor to autistic children. He’ll gig, but never again on this scale. Mostly, he’ll write and stay put in Erie, home.

1 At this point, with apologies to Sean Thomas Dougherty and others who may have blogged about the event, I present a brief description of the poets and their performances, for those who may never have seen them. Others have and will no doubt present something like this list, but here I am merely following the draft of this essay I wrote on the spot. 

2At a reading I took part in in 2013, Donna Masini told the audience that she was revising the poem she was about to read at the bus stop on the way over. Comments like hers are commonplace at readings. At times they reflect a poet’s striving for perfection; at other times they suggest the kind of haphazard composition that can and does sometimes drive more seasoned poets away from open mics.

Sean Thomas Dougherty reading at the 2014 Best American Poetry Event
(Photo courtesy of Jordan Calhoun)