Event Reviews

Samuel Menashe Reads at the Library of Congress (11/01)
by Michael Schaffner
Poets House Reopens (11/9-10)
. . . To Long Lines, No Buskers...Yet (--MH)
. . . With a Bang by Daniela Gioseffi
Alice Notley (Disobedience) and David Hess (Cage Dances)
at Poetry Project (11/12)

~ . ~ . ~

Samuel Menashe Reads at the Library of Congress (11/01)
by Michael Schaffner

Usually I avoid poetry readings. Since I write poetry myself, and accept nearly every invitation to read my own work, I don't feel too good about this. But faced with a choice between hearing most poets and rereading the Devil's Dictionary, I have no problem deciding.

Part of this results from what most poets read and how they read it. Even a great poem can fail if the reader hasn't a good handle on their delivery. I think of the recording of Robert Lowell's tremulous mangling of "For the Union Dead" or the time I heard Anthony Hecht belt out a few chestnuts at a wannabe poets' conference. I told a friend that the latter experience bore some resemblance to hearing God say mass. I neglected to add that hearing God say mass falls, for me, into the category of one of the probable torments of the damned.

Both these examples of strained portentousness provide the male equivalent of an equally annoying tendency among some women to drone, typically with a question-like lilt at the end of each line, and typically when recounting the insensitivity of a mother or ex-husband, as if their own side of these uniquely personal conflicts received special strength from expression in lines of arbitrarily shortened prose uttered aloud to strangers in a public forum (no, I have no ex-wife; I desire none).

I find audiences even more daunting. Please, Lord, save me from close personal friends or relatives who keep the same beatific smile of approval no matter what horror receives utterance from the podium. And please find a special place in the netherworld for those who meet any expression, however profound, banal, or naive, with the same knowing nod of understanding and in-crowd grin -- a form of audience participation roughly akin to snapping one's fingers at a Schoenberg concert.

But last Thursday night, November 1, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Samuel Menashe read his work at the Library of Congress, an experience that differed in every significant way from the usual ordeal.

For one, Menashe establishes an immediate and intimate rapport with his audience. This results from no performer's trick, but from the simple presence of his wry, avuncular figure and the puckish glint in his eye. When he speaks, the sound is full, yet gentle, and underscores the deliberate way he summons one of his short pieces from memory, then lays it on the audience like a taste from his drink, or a rare coin he would rather share than keep.

While other poets might overstay their welcome, continuing to eat up the clock by reading poem after poem, as if struggling to find the one that will endear them to their increasingly exasperated audience, Menashe always leaves you hungry for more. In part this derives from the nature of his work -- short tidbits, seldom more than eight lines long, which share the brevity and wit of good haiku, without its faux orientalism. He adds pungency with a happy sprinkling of simple meter and rhyme, using formal techniques with effectiveness, but without "formalist" ideology. The net effect is that of a bonbon filled with a shot of something both unexpected and delicious. As an example, just nibble on this one, called "Old as the Hills":

The lilt of a slope
Under the city
Flow of the land
With streets in tow
Where houses stand
Row upon row

Or try "The Offering":

Flowers, not bread
Cast upon the water --
The dead outlast
Whatever we offer

You can find both these works, and many more, in Mr. Menashe's The Niche Narrows: New and Selected Poems, out last year from Talisman House and available through Amazon, as well as from better bookstores. I can't recommend it highly enough.

The only dismaying feature of the reading was the diminuitive size of the audience at the Library -- perhaps thirty people all told to hear both Menashe and Kay Ryan. Perhaps our usual fare has soured us on the art. Still, those who made it had their faith revived, including the cynic writing this now.

If you can't get to one of Menashe's readings right away, the most recent issue of Rattapallax [No. 6] includes a CD of over thirty poets reading from their work, including Samuel. But this only provides a stopgap. Keep an eye out and, as soon as you see a chance for the real thing, take it.

(M. A. Schaffner has poems recently published or forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, The Formalist, Cumberland Poetry Review, Poetry Salzburg, and Planet: The Welsh Internationalist. Schaffner's first collection, The Good Opinion of Squirrels, won the Washington Writer's Center publication prize and the Columbia Book Award.)

~ . ~

Poets House Reopens . . . (11/9-10)
   To Long Lines, No Buskers...Yet

In high spirits on a Friday afternoon, Poets House uncorked the Chardonnay and reopened the doors on the latest progress made toward its ultimate vision; it is a grand, good one: not just domination of one floor, then another, but rather, its own free-standing building.

Eventually. For now, with staff offices moved across the hall, 35% more floor space has been gained for the library and reading room, which offers open-shelved access to a 40,000-volume collection, exhibit spaces, a conference room, and a new children's poet house which will launch its programming in April.

Stanley Kunitz, co-founder, President Emeritus, and our most recent former U.S. Poet Laureate, reminded a capacity crowd that we are living now beyond hopes in a time of uncertainty and crisis, and still, as commercial enterprises retrench, Poets House is celebrating its 15th anniversary and expanding. He praised Lee Briccetti and her staff, toasted to 'poetry, peace, and the fulfillment of dreams,' and read his signature piece "The Layers" ("I am not done with my changes"), to express why we were there.

Saturday afternoon, a downtown, uptown and out-of-town cross-section of contemporary American poets appeared, three on the hour in five segments, to celebrate the growing success of a venture begun small. The mark of vitality for a New York nightspot, film screening or art exhibit is the line that forms down the block. As Daniela Gioseffi covered the readers upstairs (reviewed below), I wove among the long double line of listeners-in-waiting that formed outside and reformed, advancing as main room audiences dispersed and reconstituted.

Each time Jane Preston updated the availability of floor seating in the virtual (video) section there were takers. In between, friend met friend, stranger made acquaintance, most discussing--some incredulous, many outraged over--the firing this week of Brilliant Bill [Wadsworth] and half the staff at the Academy [of American Poets]. Often, passersby stopped to ask--or reconfirm--what the big attraction was. "Poets House!" we exclaimed. "Oh, of course." Begun small.

Who ever predicted open mics in salad bars, slams in prisons, lines for poems on a Saturday night? I predict buskers.


~ . ~

With a Bang
by Daniela Gioseffi

The reopening of Poets House was a festive affair November 9th and 10th. Friday evening was a party hosted by Stanley Kunitz, a toast to the New York institution he'd helped to found. Actually, it surprises me that Paul Zweig is no longer credited with the original idea of Poets House, as I understood him to be its first initator. I had attended its inaugural celebration and Paul Zweig poet and professor of literature at Queens College--when he died young of cancer--had left some funding for the idea of a Poets House in New York, like the ones he visited in Europe. Kunitz and Kray took up the initiative from there. The event was greeted with an overflow crowd. On Saturday, November 10th, the atmosphere was one of a bustling poetic community. A marathon five-hour reading from 4 to 9 p.m. with fifteen poets reading for 15 minutes each marked the fifteenth year of Poets House on the second day of celebration in the newly remodeled library and office spaces at 72 Spring Street.

The directors had looked for some years for a larger space and were happy to be able to expand directly across the hall from their old headquarters--a fact that no doubt made life simpler for everyone. New office spaces and a video room are now outside the library room which seems far more spacious now that it no longer has to house photocopy machines, desks of the staff, and other office equipment. How good to see more space at Poets House in the library which now has shelving with room for more books. Poets House accommodates a Showcase every fall of every poetry book published in America [1300 last Spring] and its shelves were stuffed beyond capacity prior to the new renovation.

Saturday's festivities included readings by some of America's most noted poets and a few poets one was hard-pressed to remember hearing from before. The liveliest readings were given by tried and true poets, Gerald Stern, Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds. (I was sorry to miss hearing Donna Masini who read in the earliest group of three and who usually gives a good reading.) Jean Valentine's soft-spoken style has rarely engaged me, with her quiet, feminine tone and low-key endings. Cornelius Eady was as intensely imaginative as Regie Cabico was outrageously humorous. Lee Ann Brown used Susan Smith, the mother who drowned her children, for the subject of a ballad as Eady had used Smith's sad story to create an imaginative sequence from the voice of the mythic black man whom Smith had accused of her crime. Eady's use of the true story was far more successful than Brown's. Lee Ann Brown's parody, "Amazing Grits," I found offensive and too facile with its forced humor. Her ballad from Susan Smith's voice was unreal in its monologue form, and showed no pity for the demented and disgustingly pitiful young mother now imprisoned for life.

Sharon Olds knew how to endear herself with her sweet quivering voice singing a "happy birthday" nursery rhyme to Poets House--in a mode which she herself jokingly called "Mary Poppins trying to be Marilyn Monroe." Olds's new poem about September 11th was moving and well-written, though she said it was a work-in-progress. Interestingly, Yusef Komunyakaa gives no patter between his poems as Stern, Kinnell, Olds, and others do. He simply reads rhythmically, non-stop, but I felt he read with more passionate energy than usual. His poems have always worked better on the page for me than when he's read them aloud. Emily Chang reads well, but one grows tired of the same old "men are rotten" angers of the 70's which she expressed for the man whom she portrays as a prejudicial predator. I've heard so many poems in this mode since the 1970's. Dave Johnson was charming reading his children's poems from his workshops with energetic zeal.

Kimiko Hahn's poetry is well-crafted with surreal horror, and she, like Yusef Komunyakaa, offers little patter in between her poems. She began artfully with an ancient Japanese poet, Ono Nakomaki, of the 7th century, as Sharon Olds had read two 7th century Arabic poets before launching into her own work. Hahn read a horrifying poem about "pre-mature burial" which curdled the blood more than any Hollywood horror film with its sensational theme, but one was not sure of the point of the horror. Hahn faces squarely the visceral world in all its vulnerability in her work, and that may well be her point: that life as a biological phenomenon of extremely precarious nature, is mysteriously horrifying.

Thank goodness Poets House Library space is now airier with its ceiling fans whirring soundlessly above and its sound system working well without a hitch, as it was full to the rafters with standing room only. Kate Rushin described how squashed with bustling staff activity the room had been prior to its renovation. She read energetically, but went on too long past her allotted time as all were anxious to hear the two star poets of the evening. Gerald Stern and Galway Kinnell were the finale following Rushin. Marilyn Hacker's esoteric poems filled the room with a polite silence as sigh-filled as Regie Cabico's reading had been with laughter, earlier on. Hacker reads with careful diction and clarity, though her poems might be beyond the patience of some listeners, but then, she asked for no applause until the end.

Gerald Stern explained how important the library had been to him when he lived in the neighborhood years ago on Van Dam Street. He regaled the audience with laughter when he described how he'd been evicted from his fifth floor apartment. All speakers agreed that the library would now provide a quieter space for contemplative reading by those who use it. Stern offered the patter of a "stand-up" comedian drawing much laughter from the crowd. He gave a generous reading of others, beginning with "Crazy Jane" by Yeats and going on to e.e. cummings's "Buffalo Bill's Defunct." He touched me by reading a poem by John Logan, "Three Moves in Six Weeks," which was certainly one of the very best of the evening. Logan's exquisite music lived in Stern's mouth. Stern read mostly poets other than himself and possessed the most natural charm of the evening. When he closed with one of his own poems aptly with "how the pigs have taken over doomsday," one could not but help nod in agreement. I believe the poem was titled "Apocalypse" and was followed by "American Heaven," full of references to other poets, David Ignatow, Rose Graubart-Ignatow, Stanley Kunitz, and James Wright.

He attempted a recitation of Dylan Thomas's emblematic, "My Craft and Sullen Art," but unable to finish it from memory, left its recitation to Galway Kinnell who often recites it at his readings. Kinnell aptly began with Whitman's poem regarding a poet's struggle with financial matters and fund raising, perhaps due to the to-do at The Academy of American Poets where William Wadsworth had recently been asked to resign due to fiscal problems. Ethridge Knight's poem, titled, "The Idea of Ancestry," was movingly offered next by Kinnell, who also read Lucille Clifton's "It Was a Dream." Like Stern, Kinnell was generous in presenting other poets, and he read a poem of his own dedicated to the memory of Richard Hugo, titled "The Oregon Coast," in which the need of 18th century poets to personify natural phenomena was discussed in apt poetry. He offered a poem-in-progress titled, "When the World Trade Towers Came Down," which he said he was not sure of, but the comparisons to Hiroshima and Nagasaki were compelling and the poem, quite successful, I thought. He followed it with a section from his poem, "Lastness" ("as empty space / must have bent / over the newborn planet / and smelled the grasslands and the ferns").

Lee Briccetti, who graciously hosted the marathon, thanked the Board of Directors, Margo Viscusi, president, and Frank Platt, Myra and Harold Shapiro, in particular, and the much-loved Annie Wright, widow of the great American poet, James Wright, for their help with the proceedings. Everyone buzzed about with friendly communion to close the reopening ceremonies of a newly renovated Poets House--a home to poets everywhere in the country, to poets passing through, and to poets who live in the stricken, but thriving "Big City" of literature and art.

(An American Book Award winner, Daniela Gioseffi has published ten books of poetry and prose.)

~ . ~

Alice Notley (Disobedience) and David Hess (Cage Dances)
at Poetry Project (11/12)

In the course of an especially busy programming month, which on November 7 included a gala benefit featuring Lou Reed and others performing Doc Homus, St. Marks rehosted the one-time East Village, now Parisian Notley, who spoke to its audiences some years before Hess spoke at all.

And who will know the desolation of St. Marks Place
With Alice Notley's name forgotten and
This night never having been?

After twenty-five volumes, she who in her self-described 'first good poem' likened boxer Muhammed Ali to "a hard bright speck of me," then 30, now glitters with more variety of organically compacted specks than the Painted Desert. Hess, age 30 still in prospect, rather recalls the "rocks in a flat field" --without Notley's predicate, "We should all live like . . . "

He has read Blake, and began with a quote: "Excess of sorrow laughs. / Excess of joy weeps." Five minutes later, my mind had called off the search for the alternating 'matter and anti-matter, gravitas and lyric' of his as-billed promise and was reciting, "What the hammer? What the chain? / In what [freezer] was thy brain?"

Conjured cumulous 'threesomes' drew a laugh with, "Clouds fuck. We call it the weather." Kiddie titters went up for "Lick and let lick," photo-ID solidarity for "to get wrecked . . . 'tis our birthright," followed by thumping for "Instead of Wordsworth and Coleridge, we are Hall & Oates." You wish. Find a twelveing hammock, lie in it, ponder cloud-condoms, and write a thousand times: "I've wasted my / MFA." Hess's delivery is Star Trek robotic, but with the toothless, lipless diction of the very old or very adolescent. Oil can, please!--and a heart.

In 1995, Alice and I recorded a 5,000-word interview in Paris.[*] Her purpose with Mysteries of Small Houses (1998 Pulitzer finalist), she said then, was to re-center the 'I', convinced that people needed to be able to talk about themselves, and could do so without narcissism. The work self-organized into roughly chronological autobiography, begun with the self that she knew had remained essentially intact since age 4. She also intended to address grief. (And did: "The Person That You Were Will Be Changed") She felt displaced, even diminished, in Paris, had given up a big part of her 'social self,' and was trying to identify particulars she could use.

Yet, for most of that year and of the next, she wrote ("Is this a 'diary'?"), freely deriving particulars from vivid, peculiar dreams, often accompanied in them by a Virgilian anti-guide whose name morphs (Hardwood, Hardwill, Mitch-ham) as her own has (Alice, Alette, Allie, Alma). When she read from the new book, Disobedience, the whole a single poem, I could swear she made fun of widows. ("You're checking to see whether you have / enough tranq's / in case of a [sudden?] bereavement.") Self-derision. Defiance. Self-perceived again and again as 'dark,' sometimes 'hard' ("I soul, dark doll, write so. / . . . Write more blindly blackly / without / without anything"), she renders 'danger' with a hard 'g', conceives a new perfume she calls 'Slavery.' Recently re-widowed and very thin, she is not drawn, but drawing...laughter. And now shooting up, Alma with a syringe, into her third eye, to cope with: "Harvard: Yes. Stanford: No. Columbia: 4.0."

First-time listeners snap alert to follow her rapid-burst delivery, diversions ("Hey, nonny nonny"), every word intelligible: "God is a big dead woman. / No power even though she's God."

A desert child of Needles, California ("Fill it with loves & movies & take it by car, / But only at night in playing-at-romantic river time. / The daytime blue sky gives back nothing" [**]), she was determined in '95 to break with the superpower world-view, and has succeeded:

In international heart there's no dearth of particulars
fuck the sacrosanct local, this is everyone's storm

but continues to chart the innermost triangulations as well:

you whom I love, receding or encroaching
salt. Sit down and think, that is,
observe the light and shape not quite geometric
in the fluid other.

-- MH

[*] Interview published in Paris/Atlantic, and in abridged version in The Poetry Calendar.
[**} From "Desert For All of Music to Take Place." [Poem appears in its entirety in this month's
12 section.]

~ . ~. ~