The poem is a little myth of man's capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see--it is, rather, a light by which we may see--and what we see is life.

Robert Penn Warren

Thursday, June 23, 2011

I say I hate superlatives, but...

Tonight I had the best poetry experience I've ever had. No question. I attended a reading by Cave Canem poets (co-hosted by City of Asylum), with special guest--ahem--Amiri Baraka. At the beginning of the event, one of the emcees said, "We've had some difficulties with our program. Mr. Baraka's plane has been delayed. It arrived at 7:13." Come on, I thought. This is Pittsburgh. He'll get here around 8:00.

Before what I was sure would be the timely arrival of Baraka, three other poets read. Leading off was Natasha Trethewey, about whom I knew absolutely nothing. Her presenter said Trethewey's work "revisits the 'tragic mulatto' concept" through ekphrastic poetry. I was somewhat afraid of where this might go, but Trethewey made me want to go back to my manuscript and fix everything. In some of her poems, she describes seemingly innocuous paintings from the 18th century and then proceeds to reach into the paintings and remove previously unseen beauty and horror to show us. Quickly, I became fearful that she would hand the soon-to-be-on-time Baraka his mad-as-hell behind.

Next came Cornelius Eady, someone I knew a bit more about. His presenter mentioned that Eady would be reading poems about his dead father. Oh dear, I thought. He proceeded to read poems that told concise, unlikely stories about his relationship with his father. He brought the sorry SOB into the tent for all of us to meet. He took words I usually hate to hear--bone, rib, etc.--and made them matter to me. Where supposedly effective readers would've clanged on like a runaway train, the guy whispered. Again: Would the diminutive spark plug Baraka be trod upon?

Third came Toi Derricotte, on whom I've had a major poet crush ever since I bought her ingenious, painful book Captivity. One reason I wanted to move to Pittsburgh was to breathe the same air Derricotte breathes. Like the two poets before her, Derricotte uses unadorned language to explore pain, but her poems have a redemptive quality. It was as if the audience emerged stronger after listening to her. By now, Baraka might have been wishing the plane hadn't left the tarmac in Newark.

Finally, it was the sure-to-be-plane-cranky 76-year-old's turn. I have heard stories about Baraka (from at least one person who knew him), and he has been known as the barometer of African-American literature for decades. He is a pest. He has blasted highly respected works (such as "Raisin in the Sun") for being too soft. So how did he start his segment? By telling a joke about the Tea Party movement. He actually told a lot of jokes; he seemed to be--gasp--having fun throughout, while singing jazz snippets into poems, berating our political system, etc. Ultimately, following the lead of those who preceded him, he handed us our asses.

Anyhow, I'm so grateful to be in a city that can host an event like this. I kind of feel like I just attended one of those conferences where everyone gives out great ideas, but then you have to go back to work, and your turd boss makes you keep everything the way it was. Luckily, poets are their own bosses.