I’m unemployed in NYC, so right now I’m limiting myself to kostenlos activities, or activities that only cost the price of the subway fare (which is already $2 each way). Thank heavens for reading series like Zinc and Burning Chair, where I not only see friends but hear good poetry for free.
I understand the need to charge for poetry readings when you have a super-important historical venue and a staff like at the Poetry Project, and I appreciate the capitalist sentiments behind operations like the Bowery Poetry Club. Moreover, I think poets should get paid when they read work, and I’m a fan of the pass-the-hat game. But sometimes you just really don’t have $6 to spend on a poetry reading and you still want to hear some poetry and support the poets (with your ears, not your wallet). Thus, yay Burning Chair and Zinc.
So. Last night Burning Chair offered up three readers: Michael Schiavo, Farrah Field, and Jared White. The only one I’d heard of was Schiavo, who read first. Perhaps the first thing I noticed was that he wasn’t reading in The Poetry Voice. He had a certain brash, confident stage presence (although I don’t think he’s really like that offstage) and a resonant voice, more like a poet from two generations ago. First he read from The Mad Song, which dates from 2006. This sounded like British 3rd-wave modernism to me, although there were signs that it postdated that era. I thought it might have been more interesting if it were consistently anachronistic–if he really were writing a Basil Bunting-esque text in the 2000s. But the chronoaesthetics seemed unwieldy and in the end, it wasn’t my cup of Earl Grey.
More recent work proved better– as one would hope that one’s recent work is better than one’s older work, but sadly that isn’t always the case. The second poem, “The Preacher and the Goat,” Schiavo dedicated to Obama. It had a Southern folksy rhythm (this might be most easily compared to the cadence of speech on My Name is Earl) and a recurrence of crop imagery. The poem’s nostalgic images brought to mind old (but not too old– 1970s-80s) photographs that have been damaged by light and heat, the way that everything in the South is and like the color filters in the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou? I don’t know if Schiavo is Southern, but he definitely captured something about the South–the endless fields of corn, the way everything is slow and heat-damaged. The style and timeliness of the piece seemed truer to Schiavo as a writer than the previous work. Some lines I liked (which may or may not be accurate and have accurate line breaks):
“the butterfly / though she has always been a violent machine”
“hang ropes from their trees as a sign of intimidation”
“I have a vote in my pocket primed to roll away the stone”
I should probably mention with regard to this piece the Southern racial politics involved. For instance, the second line here– I don’t recall whether the context of the piece made the allusion to “Strange Fruit” and lynching completely evident or whether it was, like the first line here, about crops. Alongside the vegetables and mnemotechnics there were these violent images. To me that’s very Southern–in the beautiful lazy South you can’t get away from this history of violence that underlies everything, that’s part of the red earth.
I particularly liked the violent butterfly. I have my own interest in butterflies but this line made the butterfly sound more like a cross between a locust and a Golden Snitch, and I remembered how my grandfather hated the little white moths that laid eggs in his garden.
The strength of that one poem dominated Schiavo’s reading in my mind, and I thought about how we publish books and chapbooks and magazines and online writings but that a good poem comes along once in a hundred thousand, and that when it comes it’s pretty easy to recognize. I thought about how we could save a lot of trees and time if we just published broadsides when those singular poems come along. It would be cool if you could go to a poetry deli and pick your favorite broadsides and have them sewn into your own self-edited anthology.
But then Farrah Field read. Again, I was surprised by the lack of Poetry Voice. Farrah was more like a storyteller, and her poems were about her “pirate alter-ego” who she invented to talk about the social pressures she felt when she turned 30. As someone feeling similar social pressures, these poems really appealed to me. Part of what appealed to me about them was that they were not about Farrah, they were about a pirate. I much prefer metaphor to first-person confessionalism. And Field had done a thorough job of writing about how a pirate might think and feel–from his zen-like calmness during periods of extreme violence, to musing about knots and how a baby might feel the same in his arms as a sack of gunpowder, to riparian navigation and thoughts about “land life,” it seemed like Field had gotten eerily into character to write these poems. Though she seemed to borrow from contemporary fashionable genres (comics, movies), Field’s poems weren’t merely “hip” pirate poems (doesn’t it seem like pirates are everywhere these days?). Recurring detailed images of bounty/booty (what the ship’s hold held), knot networks and mapping made the diegesis particularly convincing. And from within that diegesis, within my sympathy for Captain Fielding, I could think about my own life and the cultural expectations imposed upon it in a different way.
For me, this is one of the major goals of poetry and of all art: to make a reader/listener consider his/her cultural surroundings as plastic (i.e. malleable) by disjoining him/her from them for a moment. To a certain extent, I want poetry/art to represent my culture, to speak to me in a Wordsworthian or Homerian way– to record the spatiotemporal coordinates of my experience in artistic/”higher” language. But when the poem’s done with that recording function, I want it to say: it could be otherwise. The world is like this but it could be different. The poem doesn’t have to say that outright–aesthetic displacement is enough to make one think differently about the way one interacts with the world, and that displacement might snowball into social change.
A few lines from Field’s poems that I wrote down are less stupendous out of context:
“this is honesty: two ships pass each other and one will sink.”
“she isn’t sinking, merely burning in pirate waters.”
“you’re supposed to have answers by now. / You’re worried there’s nowhere to port.”
The final line here shows something of the rhythm in Field’s work, but all of these lines are places where Field’s description of the pirate’s life intersect with “real life,” where the metaphor becomes translucent.
Field’s work made me rethink the publishing thoughts I’d had with Schiavo’s work, because the pirate poems worked well as a small series. They necessitated a little book, a chapbook. Field has a book coming out, but these poems aren’t in it, so I don’t know how to get ahold of them. I did ask her for work for Foursquare, but if they are not a chapbook then they should be (ehem, Maureen).
There was a break and then Jared White read. There was a lot of parataxis, which doesn’t to my mind doesn’t serve the same plastic function that it did 20 years ago when Ron Silliman was writing The New Sentence. Parataxis is legible now in ways it wasn’t when Perelman confounded Jameson, and the reader’s ability to assimilate disparate thoughts nowadays makes all but the most outlandish paratactical maneuvers governable so that they don’t have this plastic effect of disruption/displacement. White’s use of parataxis, informed as it was by Jack Spicer, was particularly bland (I’m not trying to be mean, I just like the play on Spicer/bland). Then, I have never been a fan of Spicer. Lines I did like:
“the onion sprouted in the compost / who is rooting” (sucker-pun)
“I had all these wants / that were actually good things to want”
“the action– you said– lacked space to flesh it out properly”
“in these costumes of adults we can do anything.”
White’s reading proved once again that although it’s considered the prestigious spot to read second, or last, this isn’t always the most advantageous slot if you want a rapt audience, because if the previous reader did a good job then it’s hard to pay further attention.