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Race/Poetry Symposium

By Jeffrey McDaniel

I don’t go to church, so poetry readings are the closest thing I have to a communal spiritual experience. I think something happens when we come together and honor one another with our attention and break breath. I sometimes define poetry as “chiseled breathing”, but maybe for the purpose of metaphor, the better word is “leavened”. Poetry is leavened breathing.


I just got back from an exhilarating all-day-night Race/Poetry symposium at Sarah Lawrence that I co-organized with fellow writing professor Tina Chang. I love putting on readings, (it makes me feel like I am inhabiting my life), and this one was fairly intense on the planning end, involving 8 guest poets and 4 Sarah Lawrence professors, and 3 readings, 2 panels, 2 small-group discussion sessions, 1 dinner for the poets, and 1 wine/cheese reception, all over the course of 11 hours. It was a lot of work for Tina and I (and a cadre of generous student volunteers), but it was 100% worth it.
I tend to think in metaphors, and today’s voluptuous event kind of reminds me of a wedding: Tina and I planned for weeks, went over little details that popped up unexpectedly, all for this one intense day that vanished so quickly—we felt really alive when it was happening and then tired and relieved and happy when it was over. (The ironic thing is that I actually conceived of and structured my marriage ceremony in theatrical terms, but that’s another story.)
I’m sure many comments and fragments from poems will come back to me tomorrow and at random moments in the future, but here are some things I remember at this late moment about the symposium, some impressions that are slipping through my brain’s fingers. (I realize the futility of this endeavor, that isolated memories can’t catch the wonderful spirit of the sympoisum, that a good reading, like a good theater performance, is something that exists in time and vanishes as it is experienced.)
Roger Sedarat’s poems were striking. His book, Dear Regime: Letters to the Islamic Republic, doesn’t come out until the end of the year, but if today’s reading is any indication, he has a very bright future. His work is at times hilarious, (especially his riff on the ghazal), but also smart and full of feeling, as he fixes his poetic gaze/brain on Iran, the nation his family emigrated from.
Ravi Shankar, editor of www.drunkenboat.com, talked about his conflicted relationship with one of his earliest literary heroes, Wallace Stevens, and the challenges of dealing with family pressures and expectations, how “poet” was not the job his parents envisioned for him.
A number of writers talked about the benefits of being two things: for instance, Indian and American, and how bouncing back and forth two cultures gave them room to consider.
Eric Gamalinda mentioned the liberation he feels when he returns to the Philippines and race is not an issue the way it is in the United States. He also read work from his new collection, Amigo Warfare, including the title poem that utilizes anaphora and jumps from the direct (Because you offer praise and weapons to our dictators) to the hauntingly surreal (Because you send your spies out to investigate our dreams)
Paisley Rekdal read from the newly published The Invention of the Kaleidoscope and talked about being bi-racial, and how she is often very aware of the way different people are treating and perceiving her. In a funny moment, she also half-complained how friends in Utah always expect her to be the one to order the food in Chinese and Japanese restaurants.
Tracy K. Smith read work from her forthcoming book Duende, including a poem that dealt with John Ford’s The Searchers. Vijay Seshadri said that, because of Tracy’s poem, we would not see the film the same way again.
Grad student moderator Brynn Saito read a quote to Vijay on the subject of race, which he quickly renounced with charm.
Edwin Torres did amazing things with his body and voice. Edwin Torres, maybe more so than other American poet, blows open the aesthetic stereotypes. Is there another poet with as much credibility in both the performance and experimental communities? I remember being in grad school in the DC area and talking with Rod Smith (editor of Aerial) after a reading at the Black Cat Club (that’s one of the cool things about being in a small out-of-the-spotlight city—poets tend to hang out with one another, regardless of faction). Rod was saying (if my memory is correct) that the performance and experimental poets had a lot in common, since they were both outside the mainstream. While I agree with Rod to some degree in theory, I feel that common ground in my gut when I listen to Edwin perform.
Fellow blogger Patricia Smith stretched open the audience’s collective heart, with her poems that plunge into the emotional depths of a variety of characters, giving voice to the voiceless and talked about her experiences as a teacher at Cave Canem.
Sean Thomas Dougherty talked about growing up in a bi-racial household with an African-American stepfather and a Jewish mother. He read poems from his forthcoming Broken Hallelujahs (BOA) and talked about seeing race everywhere, at gas stations, in silences, in the way people are physically positioned in conversations.
Cathy Park Hong read a poem from her forthcoming book, Dance Dance Revolution(Norton). (Cathy has a cool blog http://www.cathyparkhong.com/)
Dennis Nurkse read two haunting persona poems, one in the voice of a 12th century heretic being buried alive in the walls of a building, a mason stoning him in; and the other in the voice of an Iraqi being abused (“loosened up”) by an American soldier. The second poem turns against our expectations as the speaker ends up pitying the soldier who holds the gun to his head and threatens to take his life away.
Thomas Sayers Ellis discussed the origins of the Dark Room Collective and top-secret boycott plans for this spring and also read several poems, one that deftly sonically spotlights the word or in a variety of words.
But the lasting feeling, beyond these perceptions, is one of poets coming together and breaking breath. The sense of unity in the air.


Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, April 1st, 2007 by Jeffrey McDaniel.