Sunday, March 11, 2012

Widening The Widening Spell

Editor's Note: At the recent AWP Conference in Chicago, as part of a panel presentation entitled "Connecting with your readers via your website and social media," Matt Bell concluded his list of "Best Practices" with the declaration "Don't let your blog be a closed system." In an effort to widen The Widening Spell, this blogger has decided to publish guest writers on a regular basis. What follows is the first of several such posts.

Music Hath Charms...Poetry Too

Within the kaleidoscopic maelstrom that was AWP 2012, I listened to a number of writers read their work whose ability to evoke a satisfying experience ranged from god-awful to godly. This comes from having the privilege to choose from thousands of wordsmiths of the widest range of skill and talents. One can choose to attend the readings of featured poets, of writers and keynoters with Pulitzers, or first year creative writing students at an off-site Chicago dive who are not exactly sure what a genre is.

One is not necessarily better than the other.

AWP is the town hall of writers’ conferences---democratic and egalitarian--providing your panel gets selected or you book that venue. All are welcome to try their hand at moving us as we listen to what moved them.

There were some commonalities of theme and usage that crossed the lines of proficiency and artfulness. One common element I noticed was that the written work often constellated around death and/or loss of a loved one or family member (that those are not always the same provided some pointed subtexts). This was true for every one of the poets who read in a panel I attended on the craft of narrative poetry: a brother, mother, grandmother, Marlon Brando and a deer all died or were already dead before the poem’s first line.

Jeffrey Yang read a haunting elegy for his friend and Mary Rockcastle’s excerpt from her novel, In Caddis Wood, used death and loss in nature as symbolic of a family’s tragedies at the Graywolf reading.

At the 35th anniversary BOA Editions reading, Matthew Shenoda read from his work, Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone, which is about historical Egypt, references The Tibetan Book of the Dead and “life severed from life.”

Other writers at these readings dwelled on death and loss of people who mattered or touchingly dealt with family problems and suffering. This is, of course, hardly surprising. These are the subjects that pierce and define us, and must be written about.

But along with this focus on loss, there was another common element: the liberal use of song titles and lines from songs from the sixties and seventies. They were sprinkled throughout every reading I attended—some poets used them too much---as a crutch to gain some measure of rhythm and likability.

Some, like Albert Goldbarth, a wholly enjoyable and I think enjoying reader, used them judiciously. His own line, “….davening gloriously at the wailing wall…” evokes “the beat.” D.A. Powell mentioned Bojangles and Funkytown to anchor the time and place of his poem. Kevin Young’s “Planet Rock” song lines and titles fit seamlessly into his bopping cadences and sense. “I’ll take you there,” he tells us, and we believe him. A poet at an off-site reading read a poem entirely filled with old time rock ‘n roll.

In each case, the recognition of those song titles and fragments is a comfort—referencing not the suffering, pain and loss of our lives, but the fun and good times. Since these poets were all of a certain age (otherwise known as “no longer young”), I can only surmise that this plentiful inclusion of the oldies serves as balm for the rigors of the inevitable road trip.

So even though the quality of the writing (and the reading) was mixed, and the usual darkness smoked up the joint, a guy on a guitar got in his licks and the backup singers were as grand and grandiloquent as always, soothing the savage and lamenting among us alike.

As D.A. Powell says, “there is no cause to grieve for the living or the dead as long as there is music in the air.”


Janet Goodman is a psychotherapist in the San Francisco bay area who specializes in treating addiction and understanding the neuroscience of the brain, addiction and emotion. She has a B.A. in English and Linguistics and a secondary teaching credential from UCLA and an M.A. in psychology from Antioch College. Janet lives in Mill Valley, California with her poet partner and cat Boomer, where many fine discussions of the multidimensional universe and line breaks take place.

1 comment:

Terry Lucas said...

Thanks, Janet, for your informed, incisive and playful commentary. You're welcome to return to The Widening Spell whenever the muse visits.