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Poetry in Public: Or, Why I Leave the House

I recently returned to the Amy Clampitt House, where I’m in residence through June, after a multi-leg trip to Baltimore and Louisville. In Baltimore, I was reading for the Enoch Pratt Free Library and its Poetry & Conversation series. In Louisville, I was attending the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, where I was reading poetry and presenting critical work. I returned with a juicy, miserable head cold, picked up in one of five airports, or on one of four flights, or in a game with a friend’s wonderful and well-behaved five-and-three-quarters-year-old child that involved him blowing at my face. (I have trouble saying no to enthusiastic children; even the well-behaved ones have some funny ideas about what makes a good game).

Catching a cold makes one take stock of why one thought it was a good idea to go out in public in the first place. In this case, the answer feels clear: I had the opportunity to read poetry alongside (which means think alongside, feel alongside, and interface with) some individuals whose work I deeply admire. Yes, I could (and do) read their poetry in the privacy of my own home, but there is something magical, to me, about showing up in space and time together that makes for its own kind of connection and memory.

Reading with old friends is always great, but I’m thinking here of what it means for a reading series coordinator or conference organizer to curate a conversation in poetry through bringing poets who might not personally know each other (and might not even be particularly familiar with each other’s work) to share a microphone. I can’t begin to measure the impact that the somewhat unsung behind-the-scenes work of these event planners has had on my growth as a writer and literary community member.

Seven years ago, in early May of 2010, I drove south down US-218 and Highway 61 to read at the Schlafly Bottleworks in Saint Louis, Missouri. Was that the time I got caught in a speed-trap outside the town of Palmyra? Was it the time I saw an armadillo roll from the undercarriage of a north-bound truck and bounce off to the shoulder of the highway? I can’t remember. What I can remember is that I was reading with Randall Mann and Andrew Joron. The idea that seven years ago I wasn’t particularly familiar with either of their bodies of work now feels unfathomable.

The reading was part of the St. Louis Poetry Center’s Observable Reading Series, which is still going strong, curated by Jeff Hamilton and Joshua Kryah, though it seems that the events take place at Dressel’s Public House, rather than the Bottleworks, now. I don’t believe that Jeff Hamilton was curating the poetry readings at that time, though he might have been. I read there again in the past few years with Shane McCrae, and I know Jeff was curating by that point. If anyone knows for sure, please tell me, because I want to get my memory straightened out and thank that curator for bringing my work into conversation with the work of both Mann and Joron that evening.*

Mann and Joron, that night and ever since, have become touchstone poets for me in terms of my own ongoing relationship with sound in poetry. Both of their bodies of work are far too original and engaging to generalize them as “poles” in terms of American poetry, but one can certainly explore their work as representative of seemingly divergent methods linked by a deep rootedness in the heuristic potential of “phonic echo,” to use Alfred Corn’s phrasing.

Both are “Bay Area” poets, by choice—born and raised elsewhere, but firmly settled (one might say both geographically and aesthetically) in San Francisco. This geographical proximity, however, makes a case, again, against aesthetic generalization; I have heard otherwise smart writers elsewhere in the country talk about “Bay Area” poets in shorthand, but these two writers alone make a compelling case for the region’s aesthetic diversity, with Mann perhaps in the lineage of chosen-San Franciscan Thom Gunn and Joron perhaps in the lineage of born-San Franciscan Philip Lamantia. And one might as easily speak of Donald Justice as Mann’s poetic forefather, or Gustaf Sobin as Joron’s, if one wanted to take region out of the equation.

Reading alongside those two poets that night in St. Louis felt revelatory. While I know that there will still be presses and journals more likely to respond to Mann’s end rhymes or narratives or lyric clarity, and there will still be those more likely to respond to Joron’s sonic experimentation and association and fragmentation, my ear refuses to choose. That night, those voices were my company in person, and they remain my company on the page, reassuring me when an editor rejects my work by saying that the poems are “complicated where they could be simpler” or overly “echoic of [Gerard Manley] Hopkins.”

One doesn’t want to fortify one’s aesthetic defenses to the point of impermeability, or constantly point to other writers’ choices to justify one’s own, but sometimes a little company is a great balm. I don’t want Joron to be simpler (and his experimentation is in a great tradition of experimentation), and I don’t want Mann’s echoes of tradition to fade (as his traditions are ever-engaged with experimentation and discovery through sound).

In “Mazed Interior,” Joron writes:

Cogs & cogs that cannot turn
         to recognitions: such dogs in the dark noonday!

As if the tongue told & tolled
         the melancholic arcades.

 Where the moods advance toward the modes.

 Time to try the knot, the Not
Or to be caught
Forever in nerve-traceries of Beauty . . .

 Unstrung, the structure is sound.

Here, assonant, consonant, homophonic, and rhyming connectivity allow for a kind of -scape loosed from land, but not from sense and syntax.

In “Order,” Mann writes of the first-person speaker’s father:

He loved punched cards,

program decks and subroutines,
assembly languages
and keypunch machines.
Even my father looked small

next to the mainframe.
The sound of order;
the space between us.
We almost laughed, but not for years–

we almost laughed. But not. For years,
the space between us,
the sound of order
next to a mainframe.

Even my father looked small.
And keypunch machines,
assembly languages,
program decks and subroutines.

He loved punched cards . . .

Note here how narrative memory still finds its emotional resonance in its actual echoes, as the lines reverse themselves and unfurl toward their origins mid-poem. (Does this form have a name? If not, perhaps we might call in an Orphic turn—a forward “path” doomed to look back. I’ve only seen it elsewhere in Natasha Trethewey’s “Myth,” but I’m curious to hear if others can think of precedents.)

Both of these poets make meaning through the “sound of order,” where “the structure is sound” (or sound “unstrung”). I think of Joron and Mann’s work often, but I thought of reading alongside them when I read alongside Ishion Hutchinson recently in Baltimore and Deborah Bernhardt recently in Louisville. I’m sure I was grinning from the front row as Hutchinson and Bernhardt read, as I was when Joron and Mann read in St. Louis, and this time I couldn’t play it cool and pin my effusion on the Schlafly’s brews—in each city, the “liquor never brewed” was sound in the mouths and minds of Joron, Mann, Hutchinson, Bernhardt.

I’ll write a bit more about Hutchinson and Bernhardt’s work in an upcoming post.


*Note: Jeff Hamilton confirmed that he was, indeed, curating the series when I read with Joron and Mann. He took a few years off, during which time Stephanie Schlaifer coordinated with Steve Schroeder. He’s now curating again. This is to to say: my thanks to all of those individuals, and to Jeff in particular, for bringing me into conversation with Joron and Mann that evening.