Posted by Chauncey Mabe in special arrangement with Best American Poetry, April 2015
As all but the most delusional poets know, originality doesn’t really exist. Every writer is beholden to the books he or she has read or the writers whose work he or she admires. That’s the idea behind the “Under the Influence” reading sponsored by The Betsy-South Beach and O, Miami each year during National Poetry Month.
The program originated four years ago. FIU poet Campbell McGrath, O, Miami (and former McGrath student) P. Scott Cunningham, and Daniel Halpern, poet and Ecco Press editor were on hand. Also present via video was Stanley Kunitz, Halpern’s teacher. Kunitz read a poem by Hyam Plutzik, the father of Betsy owner Jonathan Plutzik. Kuniz and Plutzik were contemporaries who knew each other’s work well.
“I love this event,” McGrath told the capacity audience at The Betsy’s BBar one recent evening. “It never fails to enhance our understanding of the poets who have influenced us.” He opened with another poem by Plutzik, the humorous Drinking Song.
And, because McGrath and the two poets reading with him are also writing professors, the evening demonstrated how influence is received, transmuted, and passed to the next generation of poets. Julie Marie Wade, also an FIU poet, read “A Jazz Fan Looks Back,” by the late African American poet Jayne Cortez. “We’re told to write what you know,” Wade said in connection to the poem, “but it’s better to write about what you love.” She added, “This poem makes me want to learn more about jazz.”
Daisy Fried opened with Frank O’Hara. A visiting writer-in-residence in The Betsy’s Writer's Room (The Betsy is host hotel for O, Miami during Poetry Month), Fried identified O’Hara for younger members of the audience as “a midcentury New York poet.” She lauded him for always “going for the emotion.” She promised that all three of her influence poems -- the poets also read two of their own -- would be about motherhood, though, she cautioned, “not in the way you might expect.”
McGrath lamented the past year as a bad one for poets. Tomas Transtromer, the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish poet died in late March, he noted, He read a poem titled “The Man Splitting Wood in the Daybreak,” by GalwayKinnell, who died last October. It was a vivid poem of aging and loss, beautifully rendered. McGrath told a story about playing softball against Kinnell when he was a graduate student at Columbia.
Homage was paid to foreign poets, with Fried reading from the works of Cesare Pavese, an Italian writer of the first half of the 20th century, while McGrath read a poem by the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra(who turned 100 last September) in a translation by William Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “In translation a poem is not exactly what was intended,” Fried said. “But influence comes from a variety of directions.”
Late in the evening the poets turned to their own work with an appropriate modesty. “It’s strange to make claims abut your own poetry when you’ve been reading from such great poets,” McGrath said. But he went on to read a long, terrifically visual poem called “Elvis Presley 1957.” Wade, a leading younger lesbian poet, read a charming work, part of a series, in fact, called “Portrait of Jodi Foster As the First of the Movie Girlfriends.”
Wade, a leading younger lesbian poet, read a charming work, part of a series, in fact, called “Portrait of Jodi Foster As the First of the Movie Girlfriends.”
Guest Blogger, Chauncey Mabe is a seasoned journalist with a 20-year legacy of exemplary literary criticism for South Florida’s Sun Sentinel. This Spring, with funding from The John S. and James L Knight Foundation, The Betsy-South Beach has engaged Mabe in a project to document literary programs from the inside out– sharing the creative viewpoints of wide-ranging writers who connect with Miami’s literary community through residencies in The Betsy’s Writers Room (betsywritersroom.com ) during March, April, and May, 2015.
O, Miami is a poetry festival, with a mission to reach every single person in Miami-Dade County with a poem during the month of April (National Poetry Month). Under The Influence is one of O, Miami’s annual events, held each year at The Betsy Hotel, hosted by MacArthur genius award winner, and Florida poet, Campbell McGrath. (Omiami.org)