Part One – May 21st
To a certain extent poetry has become like a tree falling in the forest: usually there is no one around to hear it. This is further evidence of the decline of civilization and – make no mistake – by extension, this area of decline is everyone’s loss, just like the ice sheets falling into the sea in both of our world’s hemispheres. I recently had the great privilege to hear the work of eight superb poets when I serendipitously arrived at the Pharmaka gallery to do research on the Downtown LA Art Walk. These writers are like magicians of language and I am humbled to attempt to express how enriched I am for having heard them read their work.
First, let me tell you, dear reader, when and where you can derive the same benefit as I have done. There is an ongoing poetry series called The Third Area the last Thursday of each month at the Pharmaka gallery (on the corner of 5th and Main). The doors open at 7p.m. and the reading starts at eight o’clock. A five dollar donation is suggested to defray the cost of supplying the audience with hors-d’oeuvres and beverages such as premium bottled beers and waters and decent domestic Chardonnay and Merlot wines. Barring inescapable commitments I will never miss another opportunity to attend these events.
Just a couple of generations ago poetry occupied an important place in the cultural lives of all Americans who had the benefit of even a decent high school education. Poets such as Frost, Dickinson, Thoreau, Whitman, Kilmer and others were taught from grammar school on. Shakespeare was part of every curricula. As a matter of fact, I learned at the advanced age of 15 a simple rhyme I had known since kindergarten, “How now, brown cow?” was penned by the Bard when my English class attended the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Without money for the arts in our public schools I fear such field trips are no longer taken.
I believe everyone should fall in love with poetry at least once in his or her life. It is the highest expression of written (and spoken) language. It is the only form that demands and cultivates musicality. By that, I mean the movement of the sounds of consonants and vowels through each line, adding texture and force to the meaning. It is a primary source of recorded human history. And it is its own reward.
John Keats said: “Poetry… should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.” That struck me as a great truth. Of course, as a mediocre simpleton, I’m in no position to argue with Keats. To that I would add anything that’s true, be it the highest or basest thoughts of humankind, will leave the strongest impression if it is told through poems.
Let me just assure all among you who are not thorns-in-the-eyes romantics, like me, that The Third Area poets are all thoroughly modern in their forms and use of language and possessed of fully developed original “voices”. Their material is not like the dreck peddled on HBO as poetry. This is line for line power. These are indelible images conjured into the air like fine instrumentals floating across an orchard. It is all about this time we live in and from places as diverse as China, Sweden, Iran and all regions of the U.S., among other locales. It informs us of current conditions in repressive regimes; of the human condition for people of various races, genders, proclivities and religions; of the ecstatic beauty that can still be found both in nature and humanity.
Luckily for all who attended, May was a “double-header” month for The Third Area as they had an extra poetry reading on the third Thursday of the month as well as the usual last one. These events were enormously divergent in style and beyond my ability to convey in their dynamic impacts. Sarah Maclay, a confident poet and teacher with sparkling eyes, a luxuriant mane of shiny, dark ash-beige hair and a fetching figure, is the artistic director and a co-curator of the monthly reading series. The line-up usually consists of four poets. Sarah, along with several other poets who serve as hosts and curators, introduce the evening’s featured literary artists. Three of these other vibrant women, at the first reading I heard, are Stephany Prodromides, Jan Wesley and intern Colleen Ware, and some of their introductions were literary works unto themselves. Poets Tess Lotta, Dina Hardy and Frankie Drayus also co-curate and host The Third Area; four act as presenters for each reading.
The Thursday, May 21st event was called “A Celebration of Letters to the World.” Letters to the World is an anthology of recent work by 259 poets from 19 countries all of whom are women. The collection, published by Red Hen Press, was introduced by Kate Gale (one of the reading’s four featured poets) who informed the audience of the difficulty of publishing a book with so many contributors. Apparently, even as the book was going to press, the writers were still arguing their cases for a different title. She paid deserved praise to the collection’s editor, Moira Richards, referring to her as “our uber-editor.” Then the poets began their spellbinding recitals.
Cati Porter was the first to read and she generously chose to read the work of another poet in the anthology before her own. She read “Female Comic Book Superheroes”, by Jeannine Hall Gailey, which offers a unique take on what is there in the pages of such comics with richly wrought detail such as: “…but always escape just in time…to rescue male partners, love interests, or fathers…”, “…Of all the goddesses these pneumatic heroines most resemble Artemis, with her miniskirts and crossbow…” A good deal of wry humor along with light shed. She proceeded to her own work beginning with a series of brief lyric poems on the subject of desire, each with “Desire” in the title. I especially enjoyed one featuring the Macroglossus Minimus, a tiny fruit bat: “…digging deeply into the mouths of flowers, they only feed on / the rawest sugars found there. But Desire is not like them / she admires them but cannot own them” and “…The woman desire was consuming…disappearing bit, by pretty bit into desire’s greedy mouth”. I thought “bit by pretty bit” was very fine and clever. She also read her poem from the LTW anthology entitled “Pomegranate, Juiced”, which rather than a still life is a marvelous metaphoric action sequence. A very powerful piece about her own human condition left an indelible impression, “Administering My Dog’s Cancer Therapy, I Think About My Sons”, in which she describes the former’s mouth as she is removing her wrist after placing a pill at the back of his throat, “…his teeth, a bracelet of blunt tines…”
Catherine Daly was the next poet of this exalted evening. She also read from another’s work, An Encyclopaedia of Scotland, by Annie Finch. Memorable imagery and linguistic sleight-of-hand such as: “…from coals to Newcastle” (on hearing this, I thought it was a pun in the downtownster frame of reference, “Cole’s”), “the crack of light on furniture glows like communion forgiving the bread” and “Oh, God! It’s sunlight striping the walls. It’s all red and green. Look at it!” “Of Hollywood” is her anthologized poem and it is an extraordinarily well-observed tour of Hollywood from a tourist’s point of view. She began writing it in front of the Frederick’s of Hollywood Lingerie Museum, where she starts the narrative poem discussing the tawdry underwear (bras with artificial nipples and other delights), then moves on to an anachronistic magic shop, then a classic bar with old-style martinis and ancient waiters, then Hollywood High School, etc. Her depiction of the ever re-commercializing circus that is Hollywood Boulevard is amazing in its scope and in that it is devoid of commentary about the objectification of women and its attendant misogyny. It describes what can be seen and says it (without ever making any kind of editorial remark). It lets the whole of the cloth speak for itself like the prose of a master realist. Readers can decide from this vantage point for themselves. She read many other poems from her many published collections and I thought along with her brilliance she has a very natural sounding style: “…with her big, toothy laugh…,” “…pictures of naked Pygmies…,” “…delight is her name, though she is very young…” She closed her “set” with poems from her new chapbook entitled Cocktail. She wove Greek myths into some of the lines, artfully, like, “…as though Persephone had sipped a Shirley Temple…” She showed her developed sense of humor often.
Kate Gale was next to grace the air with her voice. She is gifted as a reader as well as a writer, having a naturalistically dramatic delivery. She began with the work of a foreign poet whom she had never met, Adrienne Kalfalapou, whose great metaphoric poem, The Meal, left an impression like the “finish” of a great wine, “…swallow joy like champagne…” Her own work was introduced with the poem “The Night of Fireworks.” She disclosed that she teaches writing to people in the armed forces and to the incarcerated. Her ear for dialogue and her ability to incorporate it into her poetry is stunningly represented in this poem and in a section of a new collection called Fireworks Poems: “…Mary Lou is dead. He didn’t mean to do nothing. He told me that . . .” and “…the darkness… the way it rises under your skirts…,” “…what about the firecrackers…,” “…waiting for fireworks between the legs…but rice kept the household going…” Mexican culture appears to be close to her heart as she read the poem “Mexican Light,” with the memorable line, “…Our spectacular young bodies curved under water. Our breasts moons…” and the composition entitled “Fields.” She explained she had read The Bible “many, many times” in the course of her lifetime, though not disclosing the reason, and that it raised questions. One of these spurred the writing of “Fields,” a magnificent poem that juxtaposes the Israelites with a border-crossing Mexican family named the Jimenez’s. She could not reconcile the 40 years of wandering in the desert compared to the time it takes illegal immigrants to cross a geographically similar span. Phrase by phrase comparisons inform the reader of modern reality and its relationship to a famous biblical story. She closed her “set” with a poem about her husband’s predicament of being ill-suited to his profession in the aerospace industry with a poem bearing the great title “The Prisoner’s Wings.”
The closing poet, Ann Fisher-Wirth, is a professor from Oxford, Mississippi, home of the late Nobel Laureate, William Faulkner. She shared the work of Annie Ballardini, who has a website anthology based on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. She then progressed to selections from her recently published book-length poem Carta Marina, named after, as she said, “the first largely accurate map” of the North Atlantic European region of the world. She was inspired to create this work when she viewed this hand-printed example of cartography in one of the world’s great libraries, the Carolina Rediviva at Uppsala University in Sweden, where she was a visiting Fulbright Educator for a year. She also noted that dragons and demons were displayed on this historic scientific artwork. The map bore a legend in Latin, which her proficient husband translated for her. She explained that the poem was divided into three sections – (The Realm of the Dead, The Realm of Heavenly Beings and The Realm of the Underworld) – based on the observance of All Saints’ Day, a major event in Sweden. Further, the key to the map provided the sections “a through l” and the individual poems are presented in a diary format, utilizing entry dates for each. Sarah had said, most evocatively, in her introduction that this poet’s work is: “…as though the author is descending ever more deeply, rung by rung into memory, into some feeling below the surface of memory…” The reading of selections from this poem was an almost mystical experience. Part of it was the descriptions of the light in this area of the world. Much of the poem is set in the opposite season of the movie Insomnia, where daylight prevails for twenty or more hours a day (due to Sweden’s proximity to the North Pole). There are reciprocal hours of nighttime darkness, from which the poet derives the genuine ambiance of the place she occupied: the centuries old cemetery with headstones illuminated by candles in the endless night. In the season of long days, she describes the color of the buildings as “Swedish Red” and one understands, at this point in the poem, that the same paint would appear to be a different shade in France. Speaking of the map, she wrote “…how do you carve the currents in your woodblocks…” There is an atmospheric quality to this poem, sometimes elegiac, sometimes celebratory, other times accurately revealing the truth of day-to-day life that largely goes along unnoticed by most: “…you are gazing at the smear of blood on her toilet paper…,” “…and my soul is weighed in her silence…,” “…the candles are tongues of the dead…,” “this universal orb of earth and air and fire and water…” All of it built on the continuity of history.
Look forward to seeing examples of these remarkable writers’ work (and the work of the other wonderful poets from the May 28th Third Area Poetry Series at Pharmaka) today and then weekly for the next several weeks. Part Two of this article will feature my impressions of the second event.
Don’t forget this Thursday, June 25th at eight o’clock!
Also, check out the website at www.poetry.la <http://www.poetry.la/> click on the “Recent Videos” selection on the menu and then go to May 3, 2009. There you’ll find “Interview: The 3rd Area…”, a ten minute You Tube piece that shows Sarah Maclay describing the doings at Pharmaka (note the healthful and delicious array of simple snacks).