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 2015).
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.
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 shared some pages she had written. When Plimpton pronounced her ”a writer” she was kickstarted 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.
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)
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, they undertook the proper role of poets.
Very little was shielded by metaphor or discreet innuendo, especially in Saeed Jones’s searing accounts of boyhood and adolescence. This was confessional literature, emotionally speaking, in which the audience is plunged into the experience and trials of the imaginative author like lobsters dropped into boiling water. Saeed in his role as poet 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.
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 first declaimed Ars Poetica, a verse soon to be published: “Ars Poetica: Say famine. Say gorge/Say gag/Say grace(less.) Say hunger as condition of no….. Say I am. Say I was. Say I without blood in the mouth. Say mouth…and sound like blood…”
His tumbling text, skilful yet heartfelt, played with words like bagatelle balls, parsing confused emotions until they dropped into the right hole.
Jayson next read his ‘a question of rain‘, from Muzzle magazine, then ‘what happens when I stand close to you?‘, ‘misdemeanor‘, and ‘you have to carry something / no lady is sure at night‘.
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?”
to ask for rain is to know you are already dead. that a dead boy is still dead when filled with what isn’t his. that a black boy is a dead boy: he won’t own shit either. to be one swallow away from breath, one warning away from prophet….
“Yes,” said Jayson,” they are intertwined. Blackness permeates every part of my work because it’s inescapable–there is always someone looking to remind me. So in that way, loneliness carries equal importance because it could not exist in the way that it does in the poem without being informed by my blackness. ”
Vica: ”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 about the prevailing moment, what I am seeing,” said Jayson. “But 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. [laughing] 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.”
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 but powerful domestic threats and conflicts usually screened off in her academic social circles, we imagine.
A good example is Why The Dreamer Misjudges, a verse about early adolescence she wrote earlier:
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:
Except for the last line, that might seem fodder for retrospective rage. But Susana had, however, found one poem which did fit for sure into The Art of Rage: “And now, Let’s Revisit Sex and Death!” she says to laughter (it was the title).
Anyway, I have no idea why I fell in love with you…
With you. It’s sleep deprivation
Dinners ar 4am in the emptying 24-hour
Coffee shop on 3rd Street, the ketchup
Darkening the rim of the bottle, the table sticky
With grease, Merle Haggard on the next booth’s
Jukebox, hookers eating meatloaf. All this time
You’re too skinny for me, all angle and bone…
Getting into bed with you,
It’s afternoon, my mind’s on play,
I’m wearing chiffon, I’m grinning
Like the cows have already come home for me
when you say,
Could you take a look at my lip—I’m thinking cancer,
Which of course stops the whole thing dead
While we go to the lamp
Get you angled right and yes,
There’s something there, could be anything,
There’s a definite thing that doesn’t belong
Like a dog in a tree….
Her third choice suggested that she had run out of rage, however. It was Springing Abbie Hoffman from Jail, from her book’s section, Dying Room For the Gone, the Diminished. The poignantly 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) with the students somewhat baffled, not knowing why he was a celebrity, then 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).
Perhaps you find that a mildly depressing vision, and Case did allow that some have found her collection sad. But she herself doesn’t feel it, possibly because she treads a fine, poised line between revelation and denial, her toughminded counting of the less pleasant aspects of the comfortable life armed, paradoxically, by the very emotional denial which she resolutely evades as a poet. Or possibly, it is just that life’s little penalties are inevitably highlighted by comfort, that modern opiate of the bourgeoisie which otherwise stifles poetic sensibilities.
Regardless, Case unswervingly voices the grimy details of spiritual existence amid the big city clamor, which is surely why the emotionally starved bourgeoisie attend poetry readings, and certainly her reading added to our interest in seeing her intriguing Manual of Practical Sexual Advice (Kattywompus Press), which we’d read about beforehand. But, she said, when we mentioned it, that she was sorry she did not bring with her.
Now, yet another distinguished wordsmith, Adam Falkner up at bat.
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 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 evening’s title, 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’d heard of the War in Baltimore. I said No.
She said Are you serious Mista? That’s messed up.
That war was like – a really big deal. Without looking up
from my grading, I said Tell me about it. She said Okay, it’s like this:…
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 domestic tragedy overcoming so many in old age, as sensitive but ruthless in detail as Susana Case:
My grandma calls me Jon.
Calls me Jeff. Says she loved
me in that new East of Eden.
Asks me by her bedside how
I’m enjoying the White House –
how that pretty Michelle is
doing, and if I’ve been able
to get any sleep. She says
she’s ready to go home. Just
unplug the spaghetti. Smells
the meds in her milkshake
from a mile away. No goodie
goo for me. No moxes for this
foxes. No trickson for this
A third, Straight Poem, which in its twisting path momentarily gives the impression that Adam is saying he is not gay, when of course he is, and daydreams accordingly:
When I say he is a good-looking man,
I mean that objectively. As in, anyone
who thinks otherwise might be so
homophobic that they themselves are
gay – and I am not gay, therefore,
I appreciate how others might be drawn
to certain features he holds. Now, when
I say I find him handsome, again,
I’d like to clarify….
Finally, Adam recites his current hit, a “love poem” to his father, with jazz like spontaneity, repeating phrases at will like a musician: My Father is a Mansion.
Adam, it turns out, slightly varies this text in different readings; he will shuffle or repeat the phrases of the verse as he goes along, in a kind of musical incantation. 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.
My father is a mansion
made entirely of myths
each vaulted ceiling more
elaborate than the last.
My father is a trophy
in a clan of empty frames.
He is a fork in the most violent
of rivers. My father is
a detective. A therapisst.
A sax player, a nobody.
A water walker. A griot
whose mouth spills stories
like moths. A legend….
Fourth and finally, in an energetic climax to the evening: Saeed Jones, whose work has been called “beautiful and unsparing”, 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 adequately conveys the dynamism and near Shakespearean creativity of his selections.
“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 (about a protagonist, Boy). 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.”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 even more energy in his words than the other three poets, outstanding though they are, all good, intelligent, lively readers. In exemplary style, Saeed Jones pronounces all his rich vocabulary clearly, well paced, forcefully, as if he had chosen each word individually and with long attention. He emphasizes particular syllables with a natural, musical cadence, and oratorical impetus, and more than Adam Falkner or Jayson Smith, he firmly caresses his words, as fully embodying ideas in themselves, rather than simply pursuing a line of thought. This free associating bard lingers on each carefully wrought sound as if the words were his own unique children.
The acre of grass is a sleeping
swarm of locusts, and in the house
beside it, tears too are mistaken.
thin streams of kerosene
when night throws itself against
the wall, when Nina Simone sings
in the next room without her body
and I’m against the wall, bruised
but out of mine: dream-headed
with my corset still on, stays
slightly less tight, bones against
bones, broken glass on the floor….
Saeed doesn’t have any difficulty finding items that fit The Art of Rage. In fact, perhaps the title was formulated in his honor, with the other poets shoehorned into it! Here comes his second choice. “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 last lines echo in our minds.
I run the dark winter
coatless and a shirt of briar.
Season of black sycamore
thickets, then the startle
of open fields. Bare feet
cracking earth. Each mile
birthing three more.
There are sorrel horses
herding inside of me.
In a four-legged night,
clouds sink into the trees…
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.”
Next is Drag:
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.”
The drag is an oil slick. The dress
ruins everything. In a hotel room
by the water, I put it on when
he says, I want to watch you take it off.
Zipping me up, he kisses the mile
markers of my spine. I cant afford
this view. From here, I see a city
that doesn’t know it is already
drowning. My neck shivers from
the trail of his tongue.
Finally, more rage, for 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.”
In the dark, my mind’s night, I go back
to your work-calloused hands, your body
and the memory of fields I no longer see.
Cheek wad of chew tobacco,
Skoal-tin ring in the back pocket
of threadbare jeans, knees
worn through entirely. How to name you:
farmhand, Kentucky boy, lover.
The one who taught me to bear
the back-throat burn of bourbon.
He reads Hour Between Dog & Wolf:
These frame busting bursts of creativity by Saeed Jones are clearly the high point of the evening.
Before the only unbroken mirror, cobalt kimono
undone, embroidered sea at my feet: I’m the self-portrait of my father.
Eyes deep as ravines, night-lined ribcage,
even the rage is his,
this dusk between both of me….
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.
The audience broke up and created a storm of conversation for close to another hour.