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my little AWP
While various poetry worlds—and Harriet—shift their focus to AWP in Denver this week, there are still plenty of readings and events going on here in New York City. Last night, Dodie Bellamy, Tim Griffin, and Kevin Killian read at White Columns, one of New York’s oldest and most vital nonprofit art spaces. It’s currently overseen by curator, artist, and writer Matthew Higgs, whom Dodie and Kevin met in the Bay Area while he was at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts at the California College of Arts and Crafts. He invited Dodie and Kevin to read at White Columns a couple years ago, and I think it was his idea to add Tim to the bill.
Tim may be best known as the editor of Artforum, but he was a serious poet for a decade before that. As someone who’s tried to bridge the poetry and visual art worlds, I was happy to see a number of prominent artists in attendance. I guess it helps to have the editor of Artforum on the bill as the opening act. Except that Kevin asked to go first, and read “Zoo Story” from his new City Lights collection of stories, Impossible Princess. He chose the less raunchy “Zoo Story” because, as he told me afterward, members of his family were in attendance. The night before, Kevin had helped organize a reading/performance at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church celebrating the release of the Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater, 1945–1985, which he co-edited. Perhaps in keeping with that spirit, he had Dodie and Tim come up to “perform” a poem based on the Joan Crawford film Autumn Leaves—“of course you’ve all seen it,” Kevin implored the audience in his charmingly inimitable way.
Tim then read four pieces that were just right for the context and occasion. The first was a brief cat poem that connected with Kevin’s feline soft porn “Zoo Story.” He then read a recent, abstract poem that used a staccato prosody and indeterminate pronouns to defer subjectivity within a phenomenological world that’s gone hazy around the edges. After expressing wariness about the category “poet-critic,” he read a poetic prose piece addressing an idea of authorship that might fit somewhere between the death of the author and the return of the real. His final piece was written in the late ’90s when he was a poetry MFA student at Bard. It seemed to be a kind of found collage poem consisting of lines and phrases from studio crits with visual artists. Did you ever notice how at a poetry reading the friends of the poet laugh the loudest at her or his funny lines (this is particularly endemic at Flarf readings)? This time the artists in the crowd—and those of us who’ve participated in these kinds of crits—were the ones who most appreciated the joke. But it was a serious piece, too, in that it cast a light on how art gets talked about, conceptualized, and utilized—for better and for worse.
Just like at AWP right now.
If it’s not too audacious of me to say so, I think Dodie is among the most significant underrecognized and underappreciated writers working today. Since “underrecognized and underappreciated writers” means they’re not all that well known, I’m sure there are plenty I don’t, well, know; but for now I’m sticking with Dodie until she achieves greater acclaim. She read most of a story entitled “When the Sick Rule the World.” It began with a questionnaire filled out at a naturopath’s office in order to help determine what environmental and dietary factors are making a person ill. As the story unfolds, the main character—Dodie (but we can never be too sure these days, can we?)—goes to visit an apartment building constructed for, and filled with, those suffering from environmental sensitivities—or, as she calls them, “the sick” (herself included). Eventually the story takes on a zombie-film screenplay quality as the sick wrest control of the world from the healthy—“the well.” Yet beneath the humor and absurdity of the whole piece is a sympathetic equation of sickness with a loss of home and an existential uncertainty—recurring themes in Dodie’s work.
There wasn’t too much hobnobbing afterward: the artists went back to their studios (maybe), Kevin’s family returned to Long Island, and the writers headed over to Patsis in the Meatpacking District, a small corner of Manhattan that used to be filled with trannies and prostitutes and great clubs like Mother, but is now overrun by people that Dodie said looked exactly like they could be from San Francisco.