Monday, April 6, 2009

The Constraint of Prisoners: How National Poetry Month is Shaping Up

Last night I saw poets Oni Buchanan and Donna Stonecipher read at Myopic Books in Wicker Park. One factor in particular contributed to making the event a little less lovely than it otherwise would have been. The weather. The awful, ice-cream-brain-freeze inducing slush crap that piles up on the sidewalks and all of Wicker Park's spike high heelers were searching for higher, warmer, snowless ground. I attribute this for the less than stellar turnout at Myopic. There were 5 of us audience goers. Five.

Now, people love to hate on Poetry Month. Why have you debased poetry to the level of National Toilet Paper Appreciation Month? Placed it at the mercy of commodification; used it as a gimmick for arts organizations to "do some stuff" one and a while? Yes, these objections can be well argued. Objections are made on the morality of the thing: Ange Milinko opposes NPM because "in a time of prolific poetic production, the Academy invented a National Poetry Month using the language of victimhood," placing it in between Black History Month and Women's History Month out of convenience. But NPM can also be the time to get cranky about other stuff, the time for the general critics of what-poetry's-become to speak their mind, and issue their carefully-worded clarifications just. to. nail. home. the. point. that there's too much money in poetry. We don't need this, naysayer! Wait until May. Then, let's have your criticism. Leave April alone. Go see someone you admire read. Go read.

Sadly, everyone keeps reminding us that poetry is on the realm of academic, inching closer and closer inward, keeping everyone else out. Could it simply be that not more than 5 people felt like braving the weather, leaving their house on a Sunday evening, to go to a non-chain, non-establishment, Chicago-famous bookstore? Why couldn't 5 more people come out? Didn't they at least want to see Myopic's resident cat and then fall upon some poetry? Certainly some more people would want to notice the following book titles on the shelves at Myopic before catching the reading: 1) Stroud's Digest on the Diseases of Birds ($8.50). 2) Chicago Manual of Style, 14th ed. (my god--only $11.50; that's a fifth of what you'd pay for the 15th ed., new). 3) The Federal Role in Urban Mass Transportation ($cheap! and cool!).

Well, this was not what this post was supposed to be about. There's no use being spiteful about poetry. The people who wanted to come, came. The people in the audience cares and laughed at the clever lines and cared about the two people standing up there without a microphone, reading. I know I've missed my fair share of poetry offerings in Montana, in Chicago, in other places. Weather, homework, moodiness, bad hair evening. I've used the excuses. But I appreciate poets who make it out to read for their audience of any size.

At the reading both Buchanan and Stonecipher made comments that endeared me to their work. I understood a little more that the "mystery" of reading someone's work for the first time has deliberate and non-mysterious patterns and writing quirks behind it, unknown to the reader who only interacts with the words on the page. Buchanan has a series of poems in her new collection, Spring, that use only prisoner's constraint words. I didn't know what this was, either. (Should I have known it?) It is any word that does not have descenders or ascenders. To give you an example, Buchanan had a poem "maroon canoe". The entire poem was made up of these prisoner's constraint words like "maroon" and "canoe". This poem came after she'd been text messaging herself, challenging herself (to write to herself) in only prisoner's constraint. The poems also make generous use of O.B.'s first and/or last name. I haven't read Spring, but I'm sure I'd be surprised and concerned to see her name throughout, and the odd rhythms that come out when you're deliberately excluding certain letters. The inspiration behind the piece was an exercise of obsession, and not of an elaborate plan to thwart reader's perception of language. (O.B. mentioned not being over to sleep for a few days, kept up by the gnawing of prisoner's constraint words floating out there in the world.)

Stonecipher read from The Cosmopolitan, a collection of long-lined, numbered poems. She read a series of "inlays", where a quotation sits in the middle of the poems, in italics, clearly attributed. When reading, she chose to interrupt the poem--mid stanza--and narrate where the direct quotation started and who wrote it, then launching into the rest of the poem. I thought this a curious choice. Poets often appropriate parts of other people's work, sometimes burying it as their own (a word or two, a fantastic title) or using it as an epigraph. Usually, the poet reads these taken parts seamlessly, as much a part of the new poem as their own words. I found D.S.'s interruption useful-- because as a reader you're interrupted, startled, by this long and differently formatted quotation in the middle of a poem-- and also distracting. I wanted her to keep going with it, stay in the incantation of it. I'm sure the intention was interruption, just as she was interrupted when reading Kafka, etc. to job down the favorite line and ponder a poem out of it.

And, finally, the Myopic cat. His name is Leonard:

No comments: