Congratulations to new directors Charles Alexander and Teresa Driver this year for putting on what may just be the best Tucson Poetry Festival yet. The usually staid and somewhat conservative festival shook the branches of the resident palo verde network on its first night this year with Heather Nagami's urgently disintegrating onomatopoetic translations and Will Alexander's wild, simultaneously digressive and improvisational imaginings of "The Blood Penguin" and "the discovery of water on Mars." The house was packed. And from there, it only got better. The second night, after the presentation of a new Will Inman poetry award by David Ray, Patrick Pritchett's trans-bodily homage to Joan of Arc lushly evoked echoes of Duncan.
A particular highlight of the festival was Tenney Nathanson's reading of his explosively funny heteroglossic poems ("Can a cow keep Louisiana? Can you prefer? That is not Italian.") which figured a new vision of the body by way of zen and collaged or "found" intertexts: "face cracked open in laughter Susan said, and told me 'I hope your face cracks' that was Deer Park." What impresses me most about Nathanson's poetry is its originality and its eclecticism, owing influences equally to zen, Whitman, HD, Mac Low, Pound, and the NY School via Shapiro, Blackburn, and O'Hara. And such eclecticism is really what I found most remarkable about this year's Tucson festival -- a wide range of styles and interests being represented (Silliman's way of putting this, quotably, is to describe Nathanson and Alexander as the "Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside" of Tucson poetry). Such encouraging variety evokes for me the kind of ideal readers who emerge in Kathleen Fraser's following passage from Translating the Unspeakable (she is passing them in a bookstore window):
They want to share this moment, yet to keep communion--each with his private place in which the poem's words continue to resonate. They have read beyond fashion or obligation. They have traveled outside of habit and into the currents of their own responsiveness.
Clearly something held together and inspired the range of attendees to this year's festival. One of those things is Alexander's infectious passion for poetry and his commitment to the art via Chax Press and his involvement with various outreach projects into the local community, including POG and the Cushing Street reading series.
Another is the festival's theme of "Poetry and Painting," a topic that engaged most of the poets involved. The two readers who presented work most relevant to this theme, Kathleen Fraser and David Shapiro, thus gave the readings which, for me, really stood out and made the event cohere. Fraser's choice to show images from her vispo book h I dde violeth I dde violet (Nomados Press) was an effective way of demonstrating the affinities between poetry and painting. In this book, Fraser worked with a form of composition by field. The placement of almost-words and the variation in font-size created an intense and playful visual experience of language-learning. The sounding of these partial utterances seemed at times like an alien language, at times like baby-talk. But rather than the experience being merely "unfamiliar" in a surrealist sense, it was also joyful: it betrayed a halting lyricism and a syncopated grace. David Shapiro's reading demonstrated another equally dramatic example of interaction between the two arts: that of ekphrasis. While showing images of various works by Jasper Johns (including the dark "lightbulb" sculpture), Shapiro read poems that had been written as ekphrases of these works, a correlation which is not always apparent from reading the poems by themselves. Perhaps most significantly, this complex writer's poems are not simply "about paintings;" on the contrary they often glance off the artwork and pursue their own existence outside of that work.
Indeed, the notion of poetry as a riddle with a hidden answer or no answer at all (perhaps language negotiates between the 2 as material) reverberated for me as a constant theme throughout the festival in the various small group sessions. Shapiro's was probably the most amusing -- he put a plastic shaving razor on the table and told everyone to write a line about it, but "without contempt" (as in "oh, little razor…"). The variety of responses was fascinating: some tried to describe the object, others tried to describe what it did in the sense of its ideal function, others made dreamlike surreal associations, but all of them (most significantly), wrote in a way that somehow tonally or intuitively evoked a form of coded personal experience, even if no "self" was present in the usual narrative sense. It's hard, if not impossible, to keep desire and the consequentialities of drama out of language, even if one says things that at first appear random, a notion which I find very intriguing.
It was a pleasure to see some of my favorite Tucson folks such as Cynthia Miller, Matt Rotando, Wendy Burk, Eric Magrane, Austin Publicover, Sue Carnahan, Lisa Cooper, Liisa Phillips, David and Judy Ray, and Spring Ulmer, and to meet new ones such as Dawn Pendergast. This will clearly continue to be a vital place for poetry, and if the festival board is able to recognize what a wonderful job Charles and Teresa did this year, here's hoping that next year's festival, on Poetry and the Body, learns from their already high standards.
I'm off to the Tucson Poetry Festival this weekend, which promises to be an exciting event featuring readings by David Shapiro, Kathleen Fraser, Tenney Nathanson, Will Alexander, and more...maybe I'll see you there!
"Then you may also agree that it is no wonder if those who have reached this height are reluctant to manage the affairs of men. Their souls long to spend all their time in that upper world--naturally enough, if here once more our parable holds true. Nor, again, is it at all strange that one who comes from the contemplation of divine things to the miseries of human life should appear awkward and ridiculous when, with eyes still dazed and not yet accustomed to the darkness, he is compelled, in a law-court or elsewhere, to dispute about the shadows of justice or the images that cast those shadows…" -- Plato, The Republic *
Last week I was at the bookstore picking up Spinoza and Whitehead.
That's an example of metonymy. Spinoza and Whitehead wanted to go for a drink afterward but I said we should be getting home soon, I only have five hours before I turn into a pumpkin.
I handed the books over to the woman at the counter to pay for them, and I said "It was a relief to find these; they are exactly what I needed." She said "So, where do you teach?"
Pumpkins are more frequent in the window displays. You and I form a figure in which the area of likeness and the area of unlikeness becomes thinner than a wig cap.
Sometime around then, I had a horrifying dream in which I was swallowing large rats while trying not to kill them.
I felt secure in the knowledge that my courageously humane rat-swallowing would not go unnoticed. A wig cap protects you from another's scalp disease.
I carved a bust of Spinoza on my pumpkin, and the costumed kids passed by the porch like an ostrich.
Friends had been calling; I cooked dinner that night in the last clean pot.