Every spring, for nine years running, the PEN World Voices Festival brings an astounding array of writers from all over the globe to New York City for a weeklong exchange of ideas and celebration of matters of literary exigence. This year’s theme was Bravery, and audiences were privy to diverse happenings that occupied 24 venues, included almost 120 writers, and brought to the public seventy-plus events. On Monday, April 29, you could hear Russian, Palestinian, Native American, Trinidadian, French, and American novelists, poets, playwrights, and journalists read from their work at the opening-night kick-off at Cooper Union’s Great Hall. On Tuesday you could choose from a gala honoring American novelist Philip Roth; a workshop with Caribbean writer Earl Lovelace; a talk with exiled Iranian non-fiction writer and novelist Shahrnuch Parispur; or a discussion of Memory Theater with British philosopher Simon Critchley. And that’s merely a sample of Tuesday’s events. It would be impossible to attend everything on every day, but, next year, even if you can get to only a few, you’ll get to be part of a remarkable conversation about life and literature that you won’t soon forget.
Bravery in Poetry: Wednesday, May, 1 2013.
The current executive director of the Poetry Society of America, Alice Quinn, introduced seven contemporary poets who, in turn, each discussed a poet whom he or she admired and felt brought bravery to their work. Particularly powerful were Yusef Komunyakaa’s veneration of Muriel Rukeyser, Eileen Myles’s ode to Akilah Oliver, and Hilton Als’s homage to Brenda Shaughnessy.
Of the seven poets honored, Shaughnessy is the only living poet, and Als, justifiably, finds a great open courage in her newest collection Our Andromeda. He read her “I Wish I Had More Sisters,” which appeared in the September 20, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, where Als is a writer. On the surface, the poem is a perky ode to sisterhood – the closeness, the separateness, the camaraderie, the jealousy that so many sisters share. But lurking in this taut, sometimes funny, quickly-moving lyric, is the desire, the lack. The poem, which on the surface seems to be about the wonders of intimacy, hovers above the black hole of want, the emptiness of what isn’t there.
Komunyakaa cited a “lack of hesitation” in Rukeyser’s work that moved her closer to
“learning the so-called other,” and read “St. Roach” from her ultimate book The Gates, a collection of poems that were birthed by her experience as the president of the PEN America Center in the 1970s. The poem’s repetition of the phrase “For that,” which opens most of the lines, serves as a multilayered condemnation, first for the things the you of the poem is accused of, but also for the speaker of the poem for her received contempt of the other, for her willful ignorance and her prejudice. As the accusations reach their climax and the speaker comes to realize her offense, the poem turns: “Yesterday I looked at one of you for the first time…Today I touched one of you for the first time…I reach, I touch, I begin to know you.”
Myles choice of the work of Akilah Oliver was a revelation. Oliver flew a bit under the mainstream radar. And, sadly, she died in 2011 at the age of 50. But Myles’s mission to “introduce her to you” was a terrific success, as she read several poems from her latest collection A Toast in the House of Friends and an earlier chapbook, The She Said Dialogues. Oliver’s poems are amalgams of lines culled from conversations, observations, day-to-day happenings, critical theory, academic tomes, and both cooked and raw snippets from her busy mind’s constant stream of thought. The lines combine to create both sundry and sophisticated musings on identity and life: “I’m walking down a carnival, not beautiful, not that smart, not that blessed, but a tenacious hostage. What does it mean to be a post-colonial subject? An I in a category that as of yet is I not Idaho. At first I was lost but now I am found.”
In her overview of bravery in poetry, Alice Quinn quoted from Elizabeth Bishop’s paean to W.H. Auden on the event of his death. Auden’s writing, Bishop said, “made us feel tough, ready, and in the know,” and Quinn reminded the audience that good poetry is all about taking risks (“not just unconventional line breaks,” Mary Karr quipped). The best poems expose something close and dear to the writer, which then exposes its like in the reader. Again, from Muriel Rukeyser: “I reach, I touch, I begin to know you.”
To hear the full talk on Bravery in Poetry, go to http://worldvoices.pen.org/event/2013/02/14/bravery-poetry