Went to the Mutanabbi Street Memorial Reading this past Sunday mostly because of the announced lineup, which included some stellar poets who I know by reputation but have not heard read.
Yes, I still put a lot of personal value on a good live poetry reading, probably because that is the environment where I was first able to engage and be engaged by contemporary poetics. Even as I continue investing my energies into publication; studying (and occasionally being stumped) techniques surrounding line break, meter and white space; reading more and more authors who have mastered the previously mentioned techniques; I still feel that all these energies lead back to the origin point of reading the poem to a live audience.
The pitfall of the above statement is that a poet can then only be measured by how good they are at their last reading as opposed to looking at their entire history of letters. A proposition that is not only unfair but also risky for the poet since there are a variety of factors that are completely out of their control in a live reading. Of course, that risk can payoff in some deep rewards.
The live reading at the San Francisco Public Library was full of risk for the readers in attendance: how do you balance bringing to light the tragic events of Mutanabbi Street at a poetry reading and also your privilege as a writer living in America in the forefront? Maybe not the question the readers had in mind but a question that lingers with me whenever I attend a reading where art takes a charged political role.
I am happy to say that many of the poets dazzled me with well thought out pieces – poems, essays and/or cover poems – and just enough commentary to add a personal perspective to the aftermath of the Mutanabbi car bombing alongside some urgency in their reading.
Sadly, I did not find those details in Jane Hirshfield’s reading. From her first poem, describing a poet who can not get their words out to the world (a poem that left me wondering if she was talking about a writer in Iraq or someone in the US who doesn’t have access or can not find the mentorship/venue that can help them share their words), to her poem that stops abruptly with a grammatically inaccurate ending symbolizing those who have no say when their poems end. Again, is this a poet whose voice has been prematurely snuffed by an act of violence or someone who cannot get their poem past the first round slushpile? I also ask if that abrupt ending is something that happens a half-a-world away or part of the random violence I’ve been surrounded by my whole life in the United States?
Hirschfield was going to share another poem regarding world violence but deferred since devorah major had already shared a poem regarding Dafur. This left enough time to recite a poem written on (insert dramatic pause) September 14, 2001 (end with second dramatic pause). At this point I wanted to stand up and ask “Well, why is that date so important?” because that is how talked down to I was feeling. It all ends with a poem neatly wrapped it all up as Hirschfield reminisces on her Narcissus blooming in Mill Valley, the same way they bloom in this trouble-filled world.
While I did feel that Ms. Hirschfield’s poems were sound and lyrically rich, I also felt that they belonged in the same category as the empty protest poems I have heard at many open mics, poems invested in the political sensibilities of the writer and the popular stance embedded in their poems, which means that if I don’t agree with the sentiment and/or craft of the poems, then I must be supporting the terrible politicial (in)actions that helped birth the poem in the first place.
On a similar note, I felt that devorah major’s poems where steeped in anger but I never knew exactly what I was supposed to be angry about.
Flipping over to the positive side of things, I loved Bob Gluck’s reading. His choice of personal essay regarding him “home” in books was perfect for this reading and it was delivered with energy, wit and presence. Jack Hirschman shared poems from an Iraqi poet that proved that some poets do have a say as to where their poems end and how they get to the rest of the literary world. Genny Lim crafts her own histories into her poems with a voice that is aware in the everyday and in the rituals of the past. George Evans shared poems from Daisy Zamorra and his own that built, syllable by syllable, in intensity. And the poems of Michael Palmer were succinct, politically engaging and shifted seamlessly from the madmen that rule the world, to the madmen who let it happen, to the birds that will go on regardless.
Much to love and much to consider at a reading that left me wondering what poems I would choose and how important is that choice but also making sure that we properly communicate those poems to the world.