"Part John Phillip Sousa, part James Brown, this poetry festival came about at exactly the right time and made my feet move in ways heretofore unknown."
On the Carrboro Poetry Festival: Or how I came to Love the Poem Again (Standard Schaefer)
Part John Phillip Sousa, part James Brown, this poetry festival came about at exactly the right time and made my feet move in ways heretofore unknown.
Living and writing in Los Angeles for 13 years was a kind of exile overcome strictly through signs: I’d edit a magazine, take part in panel here and there, publish a bit but rarely did I get the chance to mingle with the unaligned.
What you often see on the West Coast, at least among the appointed avant-garde is a staid, black turtleneck kind of audience. People clap politely, maybe. The closest you ever feel to your audience is the occasional neo-marxist grad student who tells you that a section of your poem was reminiscent of something the Rova Quartet did in 1971.
Under Patrick Heron’s seer-sucker stewardship, a truly diverse collection of poets ranging from local elders like Jeffrey Beam, David Manning and Carl Martin to up and coming poetry stars like Ravi Shankar and Lee Ann Brown came together not only for a ravishing reading but also some serious garrulousness.
For me there were some non-surprises like discovering that Mark DuCharme is as thoughtful in person as he is on the page. Linh Dinh is every bit as clever in person though not quite so gregarious: the melancholia that fuels the intelligence in his otherwise comical work appears as a down-to-earth, meditative calm in person.
The real surprises for me were the poets like Chris Vitiello who I didn’t know beforehand, except in by name from magazines. Chris’s work I liked when I read it, but, as is always the case when hearing a great reader, really came alive, so funny and sardonic. I’d sort of hoped he was female (like Chris Murray, who has the same androgynous first name) so I could have a big, fat intellectual crush on her, as I have had with Chris Murray. However, um, the point is really to say how many good, relatively unknown writers can a place as small as Carrboro have? Tony Tost, for example, was new to me, but he confirmed what I’d ways believed poetry communities could consist of. Another down-to-earther whose work is filled with sensitive disclosures, the quiet heart of something American and unabashedly male suffuses his work. The humor and charm of them serves to edge the reader along some otherwise jagged, jangling truths. This is work about the act of projecting and sublimating that enacts all the complicated psychology without recourse to theory, but not without understanding it. I’m very glad to have met his Invisible Bride. And I confess that I was ignorant of Jeffrey Beam whose work is suffused with a spirituality even the most cynical among us could accept, as it splashes in and out of language itself, not an agenda. He read some bold dramatic monologues (albeit from the point of view of a bee) and showed how much remains possible in the sub-genre.
And then there were Ken Rumble’s musical explorations. He served as surrogate Patrick when Patrick was indisposed and he knows how to get the best fries at any hour, though I will confess that he made me a little nervous when he ordered them under the name of Freedom Fries. He caught himself at the last minute and burst into “The Internationale”.
I was glad to meet Brian Henry of Verse Press at last as I’d been familiar with the books and writer’s he’d published without having ever seen the mag, by far the best collection of current reviews of contemporary poetry I’ve ever seen.
Now, I’ve always been a big fan of Kasey Silem Mohammad, but hearing him read I was startled by a music that I had not fully known was there. It too could be part Sousa, part James Brown. And while he’s much more para-human (by which I mean he’s not quite impersonal even if stealing from computer generated language) than say Donald Revel, the fury behind some of Kasey’s music easily rivals that of Revel’s long Emersonian rants.
Murat Nemet-Nejat arrived with the freshly released EDA, a book of Turkish poetry, much of it haunting and all of it human, even if much feels refracted through a lens. It, too, conveys a spooky metaphysical continuum, full of gender ambiguity and provocative prose (his intro, plus some statements at the back) about the nature of poetry itself. If you haven’t seen his translation of Orhan Veli, you’re really missing something. Deceptively simple, they appear often as meditations on the practice of writing poetry, and reveal several layers of refracted interiority, none of which is ever solipsistic.
Brian Blanchfield’s poems were new to me, but convey vulnerable self-disclosures without melodrama (and in this way remind me of Tost), and recall much the feel of Man Ray’s photographs: the sense that the work is being mediated, but the particular force of mediation is always moving away. They’re like short films in which the camera is never still and the subject never not posing as if for a still shot. Not Even Then is one of those books that as you set it down, you make another appointment.
It’s truly unusual to find a group of writers, all with divergent interests, who nonetheless can talk and discuss and share the joy of writing without ego, without undue allegiance to a particular school or a matter of decorum. These cats were even willing to indulge my shouting across the bar that I was going to kick Maya Angelou’s bourgeois butt.
For the first time in a long time, I saw a real community open up, not a listserv. To be around people who were still passionate about poetry despite all the setbacks poetry inevitable serves up truly inspires me. It helped me stop “going through the motions” and get back to music of poetry, to the “muses”.
Equally important, I suppose, is the feedback I got for reading from a manuscript that I’ve labored over for some time, but which was becoming less and less urgent. I hadn’t really shared much of it before and am always a tentative reader, but the energy that came back to me from the room, from people like Shirlette Ammons, made me feel that this book might reach beyond my own personal little obsessions with Walt Disney, Raymond Chandler, Robinson Jeffers and so forth. As I stepped back to my seat, Patrick took the microphone and said very kindly, very generously “Standard’s got it.” It meant more to me than any award ever could.
As for Patrick, the poet laureate, little more need be said, except maybe: FOUR MORE YEARS, FOUR MORE YEARS FOUR MORE…