Mark Bibbins began the reading with poems from his new book The Dance of No Hard Feelings (Copper Canyon Press), which Laurie Anderson describes as “Delirious! Adventure stories in the shape of poems.” Many of Mark’s poems consider the depth of emotional circumstance. Phrases I wrote down as particularly memorable include “the anxiety of coincidence” and “lilac…they are mine and I will kill you to impress upon you that they are mine.”
Following Bibbins, Elaine Equi read poems inspired by her own assignments. In an aside she addressed her students, “if they [the assignments] are good enough for you, they’re good enough for me.” Some such assignments included biography poems and poems written with a particular poet in mind. In her prose poem, “The Tender Track,” Equi interrupted herself to say, “I googled this [song] for you, David. It’s by Sammy Cahn.” “And Jimmy Van Heusen,” David Lehman replied from the audience. “Oh, my god, that’s amazing. He wins a refrigerator!” Equi exclaimed. Many lines from her poems were quite humorous including, “He looked like Jesus but the kind of Jesus who likes to party.”
Jennifer Michael Hecht read next, beginning with “Trotsky’s Hand,” a critical rumination of history. “This burden of history,” she read, “is not a bird but a hand.” Hecht read poems from her book, Funny, which is filled with classic jokes. For example, “How many gorillas does it take to screw in a light bulb? One, but you need a lot of light bulbs.” One of Hecht’s several villanelles plays with the repeating lines in Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art."
David Lehman, following Hecht, shared some of his own poetic assignments. “Poem in the Manner of Wallace Stevens Rewritten by Gertrude Stein” gained the admiration of Stein and Stevens fans alike. Referring to his new nonfiction book, A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Nextbook / Schocken), Lehman talked about the possibility of fusing genres: “It seems to me a good idea, when you don’t know how to conclude a chapter of prose, to end it with a poem.” Lehman then read “Poem in the Manner of a Jazz Standard” and ended with his well-known “
Meghan O’Rourke read a selection from her new manuscript entitled “My Life as a Subject.” O’Rourke transported the audience to the world of this anticipated book with such gorgeous lines as this one: “At night we debated the skin of language.” Robert Polito read “Sister Elvis,” a four-part poem from his new book, Hollywood and God (
Paul Violi concluded the evening, commenting on the event. “What a great idea,” he exclaimed. “I feel like I’m in a gigantic workshop.” Violi read from his “Who Am I?” series, which emulates the quizzes one might find on paper placemats at a diner. Without giving away too many answers, these poems feature such historical characters as King Ferdinand and General George Armstrong Custer. The poems are witty and charming and may lead readers – or, in this case, listeners – to the revelation that history is a rich source of inspiration and that a poem or a sequence of poems may derive its material from the realm of biography.
-- Elizabeth Howort