Friday, June 20, 2014

Word for Word Lunch Poems at Bryant Park + Jeffery Renard Allen at Powerhouse

Among the many treasures New York City offers year-round is the weekly Word for Word series at the outdoor Bryant Park Reading Room, right behind the New York Public Library's Schwarzman Research Branch. Organized by Paul Romero, the poetry readings occur on Tuesdays (and some Wednesdays) in the evening and Thursdays at lunch time from January through the late fall, , except on major holidays, and feature a diverse range of readers. This year's lunchtime readings have been organized around specific presses and poetry organizations and groups, so poets published by Coffee House Press, Song Cave Press, WordTech Communications, and affiliated with CUNY and Blue Flower Arts have read so far.

Yesterday, as part of a summer-long tribute to the 50th Anniversary of the publication of Frank O'Hara's (1926-1966) legendary Lunch Poems (City Lights Books), Patricia Spears Jones invited four fellow poets to read poems inspired by O'Hara book and work, and one of his central figures and themes, New York City. Poets Lydia Cortes, Sharan Strange, Jocelyn Lieu, and Jessica Greenbaum, as well as Patricia, each read a poem by O'Hara--including some of my favorites, like "A Step Away from Them" and "Steps"--followed by their own. O'Hara's casual tone, his engagement with the everyday, his often breezy treatment of desire and love, his incisive humor, and his urbanity, all surfaced in the poems of each poet. 

Cortes read several poems that dealt with her Puerto Rican heritage; Strange also explored city life, including a poem that mentioned another poet who was present, Thomas Sayers Ellis, snapping photos throughout, and ended with an unforgettable tribute to her mother; Lieu read a series of "Hard Times Haikus" that weren't exactly haikus but distilled experience, with concision and wit, as effectively as that form can; Jessica Greenbaum invoked Florence Nightingale; and Patricia, accompanied by rain, and then by an umbrella-bearing Paul Romero, brought Paris, philosophers, Ellis (again), curses, and Freedom Summer into the mix. Though I headed off to lunch with another poet friend who attended the reading, the poems, O'Hara's and everyone elses, were satisfyingly filling all by themselves.

Lydia Cortes
Jessica Greenbaum
Jocelyn Lieu
Sharan Strange
Paul Romero, and Patricia Spears Jones

Later that evening, at the Powerhouse Arena in Dumbo, Brooklyn, poet, fiction writer and professor Jeffery Renard Allen read from his acclaimed new novel The Song of the Shank, which fictionalizes the life of Thomas Green "Blind Tom" Wiggins (1849-1908), a 19th century enslaved African American whose piano performances were legendary in their day. Jeff began the reading by talking how an Oliver Sacks article he read years first hipped him to Blind Tom's story; he noted his particular fascination with Sacks's discussion of the "autistic sublime," which he attempted to depict in his text. Other aspects of Blind Tom's life, such as his performances on behalf of the Confederacy, and his refusal, after a certain point, to perform, required a complex rendering that Jeff, as the author, had to negotiate.

He then described how he transformed Wiggins's troubling story into a novel, which took him a decade to write and which involved several false starts. His ultimate discovery entailed eliding certain historical specificities, staying aslant of Blind Tom's interiority, pushing the boundaries of realism, and taking a few other authorial liberties to bring the story to life. He also learned a few things he did not know before, such as that "the blind can cry." (I didn't know this either, but I won't forget it.) Although there are no recordings of Blind Tom's music, a Brooklyn-based performer, John Davis, has reconstructed some of them, but Allen relied primarily on his imagination. The stellar reviews he has received so far strongly affirm his approach.

After Jeff finished reading and answering questions, performer Genovis Albright accompanied him, performing one of Blind Tom's infamous tunes, "The Battle of Manassas," which sounded a lot like "Dixie." One of Blind Tom's performance techniques was to play multiple tunes--sometimes three at once--simultaneously, and Albright appeared to do this briefly, which immediately brought to mind the music of Charles Ives. I asked Albright about this, specifically mentioning his symphonies, but he wasn't sure what I meant, and afterwards I sent Jeff a note thanking him for the reading but also rhetorically wondering whether any Ives scholars had investigated whether he heard Blind Tom's performances. Given that both may have lived in and around New York at the same time, it would not be inconceivable, would it? Jeff's reading deeply sparked my interest, and The Song of the Shank is at the top of my list of summer reads.

Jeffery Renard Allen
Genovis Albright

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