The Audience is Present (Part II)
In the last week of March, Nikky Finney and Lizz Wright performed together for a packed auditorium at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Nikky opened the evening with a handful of poems drawn from all three of her collections: Rice, The World is Round, and Head Off & Split. Her poems are long—not in the “long poem” sense, but they regularly run for three or four pages, or more: extended meditations that move between narrative and lyric on lines that cascade down the page like truth overflowing the bowl of her mouth. As she read—poems about growing up in South Carolina, about the devaluation of black (women’s) bodies, about the complexities of being African American and loving the South—the audience fed her sounds of appreciation. Lizz Wright followed, and followed suit, giving us a taste of her work from each of her CDs: Salt, Dreaming Wide Awake, The Orchard, and Fellowship. She has a rich, full sound that clearly comes from the gospel tradition, but her repertoire moves seamlessly among jazz, folk, blues, r&b, and even pop (covers that she re/makes as her own), as well as spirituals and hymns. Accompanied by two musicians amazing in their own right, Toshi Reagon and Marvin J. Sewell, Wright filled the hall with the questions, musings, laments, and praises that run through her lyrics. Throughout, I could feel the room breathe, its temperature rise and fall, its pulse quicken. We were like a collective organism—not a monolith, but some sort of rare, mythological creature, many-tentacled, with multiple heads.
The performances were a deeply moving lesson in African American history and culture. Nikky’s poetry captured the “changing same” of the black body’s vulnerability to violence over the past few centuries, as well as the enduring importance of familial bonds for black survival and thriving. Wright’s voice treated us to a sampling of African American music as it has evolved over the past 150 years—not comprehensive, but hitting many of the major notes that women vocalists have sounded, in songs about love, weariness, faith. Their finale was a collaborative piece. It began with Nikky reading, as guitar and vocals layered music beneath and between the stanzas of “Left,” her breathtaking poem about the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. With the chilling final lines still reverberating in our heads, Wright moved to the foreground to sing “I Remember, I Believe,” her testament to the resilience of the (black) spirit in the face of great tribulations. Words, music, lyrics, imagery, rhythm, emotion, rhyme, history, witness, song, utterance. It was transformative. Which is to say: we walked out re-newed.
On the last weekend of March, The New Museum hosted “A Proposition by Cathy Park Hong: Stand Up.” The event took place on a Saturday afternoon where, again, a crowd had assembled to hear and see some amazing artists. In the first half of the program, Cathy gave a brilliant 45-minute talk about the honesty, abjection, and vulnerability that make humor—particularly stand-up comedy—so powerful. Her touchstone was Richard Pryor. She walked us through the qualities that made his work speak to her through a deep depression, highlighted the points of commonality between African American and Korean / Korean American histories that resonated for her in listening to his routines. Cathy began her talk by, as she put it, “humiliating herself,” doing a 10- or 15-minute comedy routine composed of other people’s jokes, and ended by encouraging us to think with her about how to bring comedy’s “teeth”—its ability to make listening to uncomfortable truths bearable—into poetry, where the conventions of “the poetry reading”—with its reverential silences, respectability, and refusal to risk failure—have become stifling to her. (Hannah's recent post about "lightness as the necessary companion to all that's sad and disturbing" comes to mind.)
The second half of the program featured three poets and a video artist sharing work that manifested the qualities Cathy is interested in seeing more of. Ariana Reines read long, unruly poems that were conversational and narrative at once. Very theatrical, in the darkened room, her introductions were rambling, improvisational—as much a part of her art as the poems themselves. Cathy Wagner read from her most recent book, Nervous Device, and new, uncollected work. Some of her pieces were sung. One not only incorporated song, but also was enacted as dialogue. (In this hilarious and biting poem, “A Well is a Mine: A Good Belongs to Me,”** she stepped back and forth—facing left, facing right—to embody the two speakers conversing about the engines of modern society: oil and slavery.) A couple of the pieces used props (a bracelet) and ritualized hand gestures to enhance or even complete the “meaning” of the poem.
Mores McWreath showed a version of his “Domestic Aria”: a series of video stills and clips of what I can only call “food products” interacting with each other and with his body in weird and messy ways. (You can see a brief segment of it here.) As the projector moved through the images, he called out their captions, which related to the images in a variety of funny and disturbing ways, without ever being directly descriptive. I’m tempted to call it a video-poem manifestation of The New Sentence, though that’s not quite accurate. And Ronaldo Wilson gave us the latest installation of his poetic practice of late: interweaving written texts with improvised audio texts, music, and other sonic effects. The written work, in this case, consisted of a series of epistolary poems between himself (or a speaker very like him named “Ronaldo”) and a cat (“Alley”) that was not his but was not not-his. Poor Alley was hit by a car just before Ronaldo moved to California, thus the poems unfold as a series of meditations about the nature of death and of home. The poems would be vital enough alone, but are even more engaging when read above and between clips of pre-recorded, improvised speech, hip-hop/new R&B, and unidentified but oddly moving sounds. Fade in. Fade out. Ronaldo DJs his own reading.
** Follow this link and click on the Table of Contents preview PDF to read the poem.
Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, poet Evie Shockley earned a BA at Northwestern University, a JD at the University of Michigan, and a PhD in English literature at Duke University. The author of several collections of poetry, including a half-red sea (2006) and the new black (2011), Shockley is...