Different kinds of messages
Saturday night’s reading concluding week three of Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program traced a large arc. It featured Eileen Myles, Daisy Zamora, and Anne Waldman. Myles read from a forthcoming work entitled The Inferno: A Poet’s Novel. Much more than a novel, the manuscript is part ars poetica, part memoir, and part underground cultural history, rescuing from oblivion poets such as Rene Ricard and Bill Knott, along with Myles’s own wild, East Village bohemian past. “The poet’s life is just so much crenellated waste,” she read at one point, invoking both a pre-gentrified New York City and the way in which some of the best personal poetry is a version of time shaking out its detritus through the mind. It’s also a reference to the fact that despite being “of all the art forms . . . the most economical” (to quote Audre Lorde), poetry seems strangely dependent on lots of unproductive free time.
Zamora’s poetry has a similar sympathy for the disenfranchised, though in a more traditional political sense. An immensely popular and important poet in Latin America, Zamora participated in the Sandinista struggle against the Somoza dictatorship, and later became Vice Minister of Culture for the Sandinista government (serving alongside Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal). Zamora read a selection of published and unpublished work that combined a precise sense of social injustice with a more general tone of disillusion. The audience seemed to particularly enjoy two poems about getting rid of deadbeat husbands. My five-year-old daughter took great delight in an anti-fairytale poem that Zamora wrote for her own children in which Cinderella, the Little Mermaid, Snow White, etc., act contrary to the conventional desires ascribed to them. This use of convention to undermine convention is a significant part of Zamora’s work.
For various reasons, I’ve probably seen Waldman read more than any other poet. As those who’ve been to her readings know, she’s a fearless performer who on stage isn’t afraid to not play nice. Praise, invective, chant, and the channeling of darker spirits and energies are frequently her preferred mode. “I can never get used to televisions,” she read at one point, tuned in as poets try to be to different kinds of messages. Her son Ambrose Bye accompanied her on piano as she read a new section from her ongoing epic poem Iovis. Toward the end of her reading, Akilah Oliver joined her and her son on stage, and read a collage of excerpts from two chapbooks—The Putterer’s Notebook and An Arriving Guard of Angels, Thusly Coming to Greet—that spoke to decaying cities and fluid erotics while Waldman served as a kind of poetry hype (wo)man echoing choice words and lines. It was one of the highlights of the evening.
Alan Gilbert is the author of the poetry collections The Treatment of Monuments (2012) and Late in the Antenna Fields (2011). He has earned praise for his ability to move between personal, national, and global scales and experiences in his wide-ranging, politically and ethically astute poetry. He is the author...