Electric reading of inner truths in Art of Rage
Surviving America: personal testimony, public exposure
Hostess has own polished saga of female ambition
Literary salons with tea and cucumber sandwiches in the front drawing room may have vanished from the earth, but in 21st Century Manhattan Vica Miller is hosting Vica Miller Literary Salons, a lively popup version in art galleries around town. The latest was her annual poetry session on Thu (Jan 22 2014).
Vica Miller not only produces bimonthly literary salons in galleries but also shoots the events with a large sports Canon – when she is not in the office or working on her second novel, The Shadow of a Blue Doll.
Four poets stripped naked – in literary terms, of course, not literally – in an unusually electrifying verse session, where three of the four well known young writers were gay, and two were black. But even the short pretty heterosexual professor was utterly unguarded about private moments.
The unvarnished truth: Susana H. Case author of 4 Rms w Vu (Mayapple 2014), a collection in four parts – Bedroom-for the Second Husband. Family Room – For the Children, the Parents, Storage Room – For the First Husband, the Lovers, and Dying Room, for the Gone, the Diminished. Some have found her volume sad, but she doesn’t feel it so.
Author, producer, promoter
But who is Vica Miller? A lithe, camera toting mother of two who transplanted from her native Saint Petersburg over twenty years ago, and has blossomed since, teaching new media at Hunter after a Masters in interactive media art from Tisch, publishing short stories and last year a book, Inga’s Zigzags (Ladno 2014), all the while running communications for DataArt, a global tech consultancy.
Soon after she arrived in Manhattan Vica found herself at one of George Plimpton’s celebrated parties and offered him a look at some pages she had written. Plimpton pronounced her ”a writer” and she was on her way to becoming a star in New York’s literary firmament. Her Inga’s Zigzags is a polished account of a Russian woman who returns to Moscow after a decade in New York, but whose bid to start her own business there is stalled by an extended lesbian love trio with two smart magazine publishers.
As fellow Russian emigrant painter Shura Skaya holds her Canon, Salon hostess Vica signs a copy of her recent novel Inga’s Zigzags, a well polished novel about a dynamic and attractive alter ego who aims to conquer Moscow but gets trapped in a love affair with two other smart women
Since 2009 Vica has passed on the torch of Plimpton’s encouragement to other authors by mounting readings in art galleries around town, and the latest was last week (Thu Jan 22 2015) at the Susan Eley Gallery on West 90th.
How not to avert your eyes
Four leading lights among younger poets each took the stage in the brownstone gallery against a backdrop of marble statuary and digital art devoted to the naked female form. (Digital paintings by Gary Kaleda and Sculptures by Lilian R. Engel, see earlier post)
Jayson Smith listens against a backdrop of variations on the theme of female form at the Susan Eley Gallery on West 90th
Naked, it turned out, was the motif of the evening, despite the title The Art of Rage under which it was advertised. All four writers blew off the burqa of face saving restraint that normally shrouds our true experience even from ourselves, articulating the joys and pain of their lives stripped of conventional screens of privacy and fear of ridicule or embarrassment. In other words, the proper role of poets.
Very little was shielded by metaphor or discreet innuendo, especially in Saeed Jones’s searing accounts of his boyhood and adolescence. This was confessional literature, in which the audience is plunged into the experience and trials of the author like lobsters dropped into boiling water. Saeed drew graphic pictures of a father outside in a field burning his son’s “sissy” clothes or a black boy bent over to shine shoes with his spittle, for example.
But the audience was sympathetic. The phrase “surviving America’ at one point drew a murmur of fellow feeling. Like addicts given their jolt of emotional heroin, the audience of young Russian women and other attentive regulars clearly got a kick out of the vintage mix of literacy and vivid truth. Questions were lively when each bard sat down.
Three thoughtful witnesses to gay truths and other experiences surviving America; From left, Jayson Smith, Adam Falkner, and Saeed Jones
In order, we heard:
Jayson Smith, choreographer and staff at Union Station magazine, 2014 Pushcart Prize Nominee, reading new poetry;
Susana H. Case
, professor of photography and sociology at the New York Institute of Technology, reading from her latest book, 4 Rms w Vu (Mayapple Press, 2014), a collection which “denies no part of this experience we call living”, as one reviewer put it.
- Adam Falkner, Dialogue Arts Project founder and director, teacher at Vassar and Columbia, reading new poetry.
Saeed Jones, editor of Buzzfeed LGBT, reading from Prelude to Bruise (Coffee House Press, 2014);
All wielded mean word power and, the men, fairly high wattage delivery, though Saeed Jones seemed to us especially to alight on each word individually with clarity and sufficient force to give it its proper due, as a wholly committed poet, to ensure listeners get its full value.
Jayson Smith explains that “so often in American culture rage equals black rage, and it’s immediately about the spectacle of rage, and my God you’re so angry, and it ceases to be about the why, and the interiority disappears, and it becomes about what everyone else feels.”
said the title, The Art of Rage, made him a little nervous “about my work standing up to such a tangible emotion. Rage is such an immediate thing right? Something you have at first before you deal with what caused it.” His interest, he said, was the deeper internal effect of rage on the spirit. ”So often in American culture rage equals black rage, and it’s immediately about the spectacle of rage, and my God you’re so angry, and it ceases to be about the why, and the interiority disappears, and it becomes about what everyone else feels.”
He declaimed: “Ars Poetica: Say family. Say gorge. Say gab. Say grace blessed. Say hunger as condition of no….. Say I am. Say I was. Say I without blood in the mouth. Say mouth…. …. Say grace. Say less, Say. Say.’
His tumbling text, skilful yet heartfelt, played with words like bagatelle balls, parsing confused emotions until they dropped into the right hole.
Jayson Smith’s tumbling text, skilful while heartfelt, played with words like bagatelle balls, parsing confused emotions until they fell into the right hole.
After reading there were questions, as always at the Vica Miller Salon. “Loneliness and being a black man, two themes I see,” said Vica. “Which is the most important?”
“Yes,” said Jayson,” they are intertwined. Black is the one thing that is put upon a person, instead of agented. It’s very much the dividing thing. But I’d say they are of equal importance.”
Vica: ”Well as a white woman I will tell you, loneliness is much bigger! Is your choreography dealing with the same emotion? “ “Yes, I am dealing with it all the time. Whether I am walking down the street or within my work.”
Vica: “So is there hope? Can we all get along? Your poetry is like a Russian writer’s, very dramatic, everyone dies. Is yours in that spirit – is there hope or is this is what it is, let it all hang out, and it dies and then it’s just sadness.?”
“I am not sure. I think my poetry is a very personal very private moment ”, said Jayson “it’s about the prevailing moment, what I am seeing, I definitely think there is hope. There’s absolutely hope. It’s a question of what the work is doing for the world, and also what the world is doing for the work. My poems are definitely not the encyclopedia on happiness.”
A woman said “I thought there was a lovely intimacy to your work. You challenge the reader to enter the poem. You invite the reader to enter the poem. I really appreciate that.”
Susana H. Case is willing to explore sex and death unsparingly, including navigating the tricky territory of describing moments in past marriages and love affairs while the present partner is in the room.
Susan H. Case read next, an event anticipated with special interest by those who have read her latest book, 4Rm w Vu, notable for its fearless grappling with the small domestic threats and conflicts usually screened off in her guarded academic social circles, we imagine.
A good example is Why The Dreamer Misjudges, a verse about one of her early experiences:
Case admitted she was, like Jayson Smith, intimidated by the title The Art of Rage (“Raging love!” exclaimed Vica, “Just think of raging love!”) “My book is about love, sex, marriage, death and a little rock and roll.”
Case is married (in the old sense, as in a union between opposite sexes) for the second time, however, so she has found at least one rage poem in her new book, 4 Rm with Vu. This has four partitions: Bedroom – For the Second Husband, Family Room – for Children and Parents, Storage Room – for the First Husband and the Lovers, and the Dying Room for the Gone and the Diminished.
She starts with “Dark Matter”
The title that caused all the trouble: not all the poets felt it fitted their style
Except for the last line, that certainly seemed fodder for retrospective rage, we thought. But Susana has, however, found one poem which fits into The Art of Rage: “And now Let’s Revisit Sex and Death!” she says to laughter. (That is the title).
Her third choice suggested that she had run out of rage, however. It was Springing Abbie Hoffman from Jail, from her Dying Room section for the Gone, the Diminished. The sadly prosaic account is of inviting a subdued Abbie Hoffman to come from jail to talk to her night class in sociology (he was allowed brief sorties during the day) and the students being somewhat baffled, not knowing why he was a celebrity, taking him for a drink to cheer him up, and how they finally got a smile (by reminding him what fun he had organizing a mass meditation to levitate the Pentagon).
Last, Case returned to an unflinching look at what life has left for us as we grow old. She dolefully declaims Incantation on the theme that the protagonist expects joy but realized soon enough that we’re not all going to last forever – “A prescription for the way I’d like life to unfold.”
If you find that a somewhat depressing vision, Case did allow that some have found her collection sad, but said she herself doesn’t feel it. Perhaps her toughminded willingness to note the unpleasant aspects of even the comfortable life is armed by the very emotional denial which she evades as a poet. Or possibly any story of life’s penalties is highlighted by comfort, that opiate of the bourgeoisie, which usually stifles poetic sensibilities.
At least Case plays back the grimy details of emotional existence amid the big city clamor, which is surely why the emotionally starved attend poetry readings. Certainly her reading added to our interest in seeing her Manual of Practical Sexual Advice (Kattywompus Press), which she said, when we mentioned it, that she was sorry she did not bring with her.
Laura Madeline Wiseman (blog): How did your new chapbook, Manual of Practical Sexual Advice (Kattywompus Press, 2012) begin?
I was cleaning out my parents’ home after they died and found a well-thumbed sex manual from the 1940s in the drawer of a bedroom table. My parents were from that generation of Americans who believed in relying upon manuals for everything. Dr. Spock wrote their household bible on child care. Anyway, I took the manual home, forgot about it, and found it again years later when clearing out my own furniture. This time I decided to read it and it got me speculating about my parents’ sexual life, in particular, that of my mother. The doctor who wrote the 1940s manual was well-meaning, but constrained by notions of gender and female sexuality in the mid-century. His portrait of what was expected for a “normal” sex life was not pretty. I decided to channel him and to also respond to him. In a way, that chapbook is a conversation between a sexual advice “expert” of the mid-twentieth century and a modern woman.
Now Adam Falkner up at bat.
Adam Falkner reads his new new “love poem” to his father, My Father is a Mansion, with jazz like spontaneity in his arrangement of phrases
“Now I have many hats but for a long time I taught high school English, and a lot of my writing comes from that stage, “ Falkner said. And on The Art of Rage, he said that “the thing I am most angry about in the world I think is about the way rage manifests itself in not very subtle ways. “
Falkner’s first poem is War in Baltimore.
“She asked if I had heard of the
war in Baltimore. And I said No…..
She tried to fill her mouth with
a few different sounds.
Tested each one out….”
He speaks with energy, adding life to the verse.
”Her eyes became Christmas morning.
Mista Falkner. Do you think that we could go there?”
Then a brand new poem: My Grandma Calls Me Barack. An unvarnished take on the miserable domestic tragedy overcoming so many in old age now, as sensitive but ruthless in detail as Susana Case:
And another, which in its twisting path momentarily gives the impression that he is saying he is not gay, when of course he is, and daydreams accordingly:
Finally, Adam recites his current hit, a “love poem” to his father, with jazz like spontaneity: My Father is a Mansion.
It turns out that Adam varies his text in different readings with jazz like spontaneity. He will shuffle or repeat the phrases that make up his poem as he goes along, in a kind of musical improvisation. Compare the above with his fine YouTube video of the same text, Adam Falkner with Shawn Randall on piano at The Firehouse Space, Brooklyn, NY Sep 13 2014. Video by Sam Teichman
, and you will hear him ring the changes.
Fourth and finally, the energetic climax of the evening: Saeed Jones, whose work has been called “beautiful and unsparing”, now reads from his debut collection Prelude to Bruise, “a dark night of the soul presented as the finest of evening gowns” (Publishers Weekly). Neither of these descriptions fits the dynamism and almost Shakespearean creativity of his work.
“This has been a refuge, “ he says gratefully, “a refuge. A physical space to have this conversation.”
He explains his interest in the various usages of the word Boy as a means to provide his collection with a narrative structure, a theme, a Leitmotif.
“Prelude to Bruise is a poetry collection that has a narrative built into it. A narrative that came out of my life. It came out of the need to write the next poem. A narrative made it easier over the five or six years of the book. The narrative was about the different facets of the word boy in the culture. Fathers and sons. Masculinity. Sexuality. Racial epithet. Boy as an object of sexual fetish. And in art, of course.”
Saeed Jones reads from his new book, Prelude to a Bruise, which is widely admired
His first poem is Boy In A Whalebone Corset, about Boy on the outskirts of a Southern town beaten by his father when he discovers him wearing lingerie and burns all his ‘sissy’ clothing outside in the field as he watches from the window. Once again, though, this is invention. Saeed, like Case, warns against taking his many verses about Boy as a literal record. “His life is not my life.”
His reading is a revelation. There is more energy in his words than the other three poets, though they were all good readers. In exemplary style, Saeed Jones pronounces all his rich words clearly, well paced, forcefully, as if he had chosen each one individually and with long attention, as he surely has. He emphasizes particular syllables with a natural, musical cadence, and oratorical impetus, as, we feel, every poet should! Even more than Falkner or Jayson Smith, he firmly caresses his words, as fully embodying ideas in themselves, rather than simply pursuing a line of thought. A free associating bard, he lingers on each carefully wrought sound as if the words were his own unique children.
Saeed doesn’t have any difficulty find items that fit the Art of Rage. In fact, it becomes clear that the title in his honor, and the other poets here were shoehorned into it! Here comes the second. “One way that rage manifests in Prelude to Bruise is that Boy if you believe it he runs away but he doesn’t very much look into the looking glass for that interiority. So when he runs away his father hunts him with a rifle.”
There is appreciative silence in the room as the great last lines echo in the mind: ”To answer your rifles last question, if you ever find me, I won’t be there.”
Like the others, Saeed says he is not interested in the bursting out of rage and its momentary exhibition. “One of the things that happens with rage is that I am not as interested in the moment of rage as I am interested in rage as something that you seep into our bodies. Like mercury, when you’re living with it over time, it begins to mingle with you.”
Then, the title track of his collection:
Saeed Jones: “The book is about me as much as it’s not. I feel that my appearance in the book is a bit of a trickster. Sometimes the only real thing is the location. But one thing I learned, you know, was that when you are so busy focusing on surviving, which we are all chosen to do as American citizens, it can become overlooked that we are living alongside people who are doing the same thing. So this is a poem about that. Body and Kentucky Bourbon.”
Finally, more rage: Interestingly, Saeed Jones, in contrast to Adam Falkner becoming like his mother, says: “I am becoming my father. We look very similar. He disappeared literally ten years ago. I walked into a room afterwards and an older relative started saying his name and I saw her eyes shining with tears. She thought I was him.” The moment led to the scene in Hour Between Dog & Wolf, since it got him to thinking of the things sons inherit. “My father and I have the same first name. I go by my middle name for a reason.”
These frame busting bursts of creativity by Saeed Jones are clearly the high point of the evening.
After loud applause and a moment of silence, Vica leads a Q/A session which raises many key points about Saeed Jones’ methods, predicament as a black LGBT poet, his politics, or lack of them, and how not to say You sound so angry! In a small phrase, finally, he inadvertently reveals what may be the secret of his method.
Vica Miller wraps up with a conclusion spurred by the evening: : “Michael Cunningham (a Pulitzer author she hosted earlier at her salon) said when he was here that he didn’t want to be pigeon holed as a gay writer, but as a writer. The rest doesn’t matter – whether you’re gay, straight, black, white, male or female. It’s all about good writing. I completely agree. I don’t believe in categories. Russian-American writers, or Jewish writers, or writers of color, etc. He also said that in the literary world, just like any other world, everything is still catered to a white straight man. And if you lack even one of those attributes – white, male or straight – you have additional obstacles to overcome. You’re the other. For them everybody else is the other. The problem for all of us is to get the others to be seen as just people.
The audience broke up and created a storm of conversation for close to another hour.
The highy charged Saeed Jones amuses admirers after his triumphant climax to the evening reading from his new Prelude to Bruise collection.
In the after party all get a chance to talk to the poets. Here Diana Bruk, a Nabokov scholar who edits viral content at Hearst, congratulates Saeed Jones on his art
Jayson Smith reassures a responsive listener that all is well
Networking is fun between like minds
Saeed Jones amuses the owner of the Gallery, Susan Eley
Saeed amusing his fellow poets even more (photo by Vica Miller)