I know this breaks a format, but hey: this is not a professional or consistent thing.
It had been a long time since I’ve paid money to see a reading. Three dollars, exactly what it was the last time I paid for a reading, attending one of the River Styx Hungry Young Poets reading after I stopped interning for them. I’m sure I wouldn’t have had to have paid, but I wanted to. I’m still kind of broke until this first paycheck at the new job but I like paying for art when I’m able. And this reading had been on my calendar for a while, you know.
John Murillo. An accomplished Afro-Chicano poet who now apparently has a job teaching at Wesleyan and also somewhere else in New York, whose second book came out the day of the reading (my copy in the mail when I got home), and who had happened to be the visiting poety professor at the University of Miami when I was an undergrad, when I deicded to take poetry, though I was (and still am) mostly interested in writing fiction. I’ve seen him read a few times before, and was amazed and very pleased each time.
Jacob Strautmann, I didn’t know. But I did learn that he lives in the same town that I do, and so we chatted about that a litttle after the reading.
The mainly white room, though this was a Monday and in Cambridge after all. Still full of some folks I recognized from other places. They noted Lloyd Schwartz’s absence humorously. I arrived about 15 minutes early, the reading only started filling up about 5-till and then it was after 8 when it actually started. I was worried about time, since I said I wouldn’t be out too late, but as there wasn’t a break the time was fine, in the end. The reading took a little more than an hour. (Then, I suppose my imagination might be skewed: Carole Maso read on campus the week before for a solid hour, I think. Also a very wonderful reading).
Poetry is a party. At a different reading recently, I was surprised to hear someone say that they thought of poetry as “social;” I don’t know why I was surprised. I’d been joking about poets having all the fun for years, and I still believe this (somewhat: the prose writers in my program tend to be better drinkers, save Megan, who is just a champion in all ways), but as I am beginning my transition away from the coddling world of an MFA program and its attendant circles and trying to go to more readings, affiliated or not, I can not deny observing a real feeling and sense of community. Even amongst strangers, there is still a sense of being there for it, you know? But I don’t mean to make it sound partiuclarly special or transcendent or anything; just noticing.
And so the reading.
Jacob Strautmann went first, reading a bunch of short poems (and the one long poem, the title poem of his new book) about West Virginia. He said they were a lot about the extraction industry, and mentioned childhood a little, but I think they were mostly a lot about childhood, and I rather liked a lot of them. Because of the brevity and his reading speed I’m sure I missed things, but he read well and with affect appropraite to his material, and it was nice: exciting, to see someone read from a first book.
And then John read. Opened with a poem – didn’t give the title – just got right into an intense poem (called TK LOOK UP), which I think I read when it was published somewhere, and even putting aside the content itself, his command of the room, the tone, the pacing, his dynamics, the rhythm – just wonderful. Lots of eye contact, too: you can tell he has practiced these poems, has read them before, has memorized them enough to perform them. And it was indeed a performance, with his asking the audince between poems if they were “alright,” and “with [him]” (all his poems, save the last, the titular poem of the new book, were pretty long). There was a lot to learn from, but also a lot to simply sit back and enjoy.
Beyond the reading of them, the poems themselves exuded such craft, though not in the sense of “craft;” these were not “workshop” poems. They were constructed, with great intention, and yes, I am probably biased, but man, did the poems sing.
It was a pleasure.
And we did get a chance to catch up, briefly, John and I, which was really, really nice. It did surprise us (both, I think) that it had been so long since I was in his class, almost a decade. But he asked after a few people we’d both known then, and vague plans were made to say hello at AWP this week, should it not, in the end, be cancelled. It was really, really nice to see him. Just a genuinely good person to see and to know.
And so that was the reading – I’m not sure what else I ought to say about it. I’m not sure Monday night readings going alone are my favorite thing, but this reading itself was wonderful, special – honestly the best I’ve been to in a while, and I’ve seen some really fucking great readings of late.
Fucking poems, man.