The publication was a ‘maelstrom’ whipped up by a ‘dubious stratagem,’ provoking an ‘irredeemable problem,’ we were told by mainstream media. Then, thirty five poets from all corners of the country promptly turned up to celebrate great writing at the New School, New York, in the largest ever launch of an annual volume in the Best American Poetry series.
Editors David Lehman and Sherman Alexie spoke warmly of the contributors (or rather, as David suggested, presidential candidates) and the 400-strong audience were exuberant throughout, with a standing ovation for Aira Dee Matthews’ incisive thought- and form-provoking ‘If My Late Grandmother Were Gertrude Stein.'
2015 was another good year for house names as well as rising stars. Saeed Jones, whose debut Prelude to Bruise was published last year, held the audience with a sparse and incisive poem, a 'reflection on the limitations of what we know about our lovers.' Baltimore-born Cody Walker tore the roof off the eighty-four-year-old college auditorium with his exhortation-as-poem ‘Trades I Would Make.’ Although it is quite a lengthy poem, shouts of “read it again” were heard at least once from the audience.
Like Walker’s piece, Dennis Nurkse’s ‘Plutonium’ gained particular resonance read aloud. As with Donald Platt’s also, these multi-page poems were long enough to address an issue of substantial importance (atomic energy, say, or the life of an African American boxer, dead at twenty-five), yet concise enough to hold an audience hearing more than thirty recitations in a ninety-minute period.
American poets are evidently still occupied, as Whitman was, with the body and its relation to the current status of its environment. The voice of Mark Bibbins’ poem confesses “I don’t even know/ who I’m kissing anymore, do you?” while Sarah Arvio’s poem addresses an out-of-time saviour: “You’ve saved my old body from the fatwa."
Such poets are, in their most basic renditions, coy autographers of everyday life, yet this work offers well-grounded claims about the body which extend beyond the personal into an arena of thought usually occupied by discussions of the private citizen and the body politic. Jericho Brown is more directly political on this subject, '[n]obody in this nation feels safe, and I’m still a reason why.'
The ‘who’ and ‘what’ of a walking, talking biology is being assessed lyrically here, and a socialized, public conception of relatedness now meets the tradition of personal expression in text. What does Dana Levin’s speaker propose when, seeing a starfish in the sea and deciding to film it, she memorializes this way: 'I stood and I shot them.' Humans negotiate their personal encounters with the world differently with time, and such poetry reports from the front lines of these shifting borders.
Close listening was needed for the judicious word choice and clinical deployment of text by Terence Winch, Susan Terris, and Monica Youn. Additional spacing and line breaks, as well as numbered sections played an important role in these compact pieces. Such techniques for vocal nuance are not easy to articulate at public readings but were well used in place of the more rigid divisions of comma, period and em-dash. The last of the readers announced that she was 'all that was standing between the audience and a drink,' an insight that brought one final shout of raucous laughter before David Lehman brought the evening to a close.
-- Sam O'Hana