Poetry Month -musings on my first week!

Whitman statute, Whitman Birthplace Huntington, LI

On Saturday April 1 I read in two very different venues: Passaic County Community College in Paterson,  New Jersey, as I was a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize and Howl Happening, a East Village arts gallery for a book launch of WORD: An Anthology which featured poets and artists or poets as poets and artists. It reminds me that like Whitman, I contain multitudes.  From the broken city across the Hudson where mill building stand, while wood frame houses fall from fire, neglect, despair to the shiny overpriced formerly bohemian EV where I grew up as a young poet and writer and became the woman I am.  The poets range from the academic to the anarchic–I seem to fit in with them all.  I thank Whitman for that inclusiveness of words and tempo and ideas.

Why because on April 7, I took part in the Walking with Whitman series organized by George Wallace for the Whitman Birthplace and Historic Site in Huntington, LI.  Going to LI is not without trepidation.  It’s a haul and I found one of the few express trains there.  I also encounter the not so gentle racism of the place. I sat down in the train car, took out my book to read on the train and this nice middle-aged woman said, “this train does not stop at Jamaica” assuming that somehow I must be on the wrong train.  I politely told her I knew what train I was on and where I was going.  The provincialism of suburbia always amazes me.

But a new friend picked me up at the train station once I got there.  His car had heated seat (nirvana) and off we went to this lovely center which has a beautiful yard, that was the original one for Whitman’s family.  And all things Whitman and a great list of poets in residence there.  I got there in time to hear the “open mic” which was pretty good–most of the poets were middle-aged or older, one very young person.  Then some pleasant music and then George Wallace introduced me and it was one of my best readings.  I read for about 40 minutes & was given an ovation-my first ever. And it was genuine and surprising and I am glad that it was.  I’ve gone to many venues where poets gin up things emotionally or otherwise to get an audience up and off their feet, but I don’t do that, at least not intentionally.

Afterwards there was a Q&A & the questions, the things on people’s minds are the things on mine:-how are we to be poets in this difficult time; how are we to create; what can we do to sustain ourselves and how and what must we do to consider the Future. Whitman talks a lot about the Future in his work, we do as well but it almost always dystopian.  We have to start to think well if we could make a better place for humans and all other creatures and be of good cheer in this cosmos, well what would that be like?  What does it mean to be inclusive, to allow for a range of expressions of sexuality, talent, civility? What will the family be like 50, 100, 200 years from now, that is if humans are still around.  I don’t know.  But I have faith that many of us are working hard to do as poets have done since the first one sang–we create, we present, we hope to connect. We seek knowledge and we hope for love.

Mark Doty, Richard Michelson, me after Paterson Poetry Prize reading.

medallion Walt Whitman Birthplace, Long Island

Poets connect in ways unexpected.

audience Poets House Gala, 26 Bridge Street all photos by Patricia Spears Jones

audience Poets House Gala, 26 Bridge Street
all photos by Patricia Spears Jones

On Monday evening I was able to join many poets and poetry enthusiasts for the annual Poets House Gala that follows the Bridgewalk.  I was one of the featured poets in the late 1990s so I feel as if I am part of a very special group of poets to have read work on the Brooklyn Bridge.  Lee Bricetti and her staff (Stephen Motika, Jane Preston, Reginald Harris, Krista Manrique, and several others) make what I know is a massive endeavor look very easy.  Got there just as Mark Doty launched into “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, Whitman’s poem that Galway Kinnell read each year until he could no longer join the proceedings–he is missed of course and I know he was sending good vibes to the audience and to Mark.  The high point of the evening was the winner of the Poetry Out loud National Recitation Contest Anita Norman’s recitation of  a Stanley Kunitz poem.  She worked that poem in front of an audience that a) knew the poem well and b) knew Stanley.  The ovation she received was well deserved.  But this is when things gets strange–Norman. I went over to speak with her and her father and found that he is the son of one of my former classmates and his grandfather was my elementary school principal.  Poets are connected in all kinds of ways.  Thom Lux and Vijay Seshadri also read well and Naomi Shahib Nye’s acceptance speech for the Elizabeth Kray award was tender and full of humor.  Great to Laureanne Bosselaar, Ira Silverberg, Dave Johnson, Kevin Young, Cornelius Eady and Sarah Micklem, Hettie Jones-I could go and on.  Poets House is important to poetry, to New York City, indeed to the globe. www.poetshouse.org.

This past Sunday, Pentecostal Sunday, I left church and got on the subway from Brooklyn to Harlem to meet with Holly Hughes BFA students who are getting an immersion into NYC arts.  It is always interesting to meet students of the arts.  They ask interesting questions.  They see things differently or they walk lockstep w/ whatever trends there are.  It is always tricky to look at, critique and create culture.  So they were there to see Carrie Mae Weems Museum Series, a group of large scale photographs there were not hung at the Guggenheim during her retrospective.  They should have been at the Guggenheim.

But also there is a terrific show When the Stars Began to Fall http://www.studiomuseum.org/exhibition/when-the-stars-begin-fall-imagination-and-the-american-south which is up until the end of June.  As a Southerner who has lived Up North for decades, I am also pleased when Black artists from the South or artists interested in the South are exhibited.  I really enjoyed the David Hammons piece which consists of several bottles in which he has created pieces representing his take on the Delta-here it is lightning in the bottle.  Lightning bolts are common –given the quick and harrowing thunderstorms that arise in the Delta so to see them is in a bottle (contained, yet powerful) makes me smile.

detail David Hammons assemblage

detail David Hammons assemblage

And while the Weems display is very powerful as her black clad figure stands in front of museums from the Pergamon in Berlin to Project Row House in Houston–that one is odd as it is modest,new and in a part of Houston that remains stubbornly proudly Black, I was also pleased to see the work of Beverly Buchanan.  Ms. Buchanan has been creating sculptures that mimic, deconstruct, examine Southern vernacular architecture.  Her father was a Agri agent and she used to join him on his rounds and so saw many farm houses throughout North Carolina.  Years ago, I saw her work and was inspired to write “Shack with Vines” one of the poems in  “Why I Left the Country” suite.  There was something about the shack’s fragility and its necessity that she was able to convey.  Her more recent works are more deconstructed, but they are made of materials that are fragile.  She continues to explore how for many shelter is makeshift, modest and can at any moment be blown away or burned down.  At any moment.

detail from Beverly Buchanan installation

detail from Beverly Buchanan installation