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On (a) Space, Listening, & (a) Friendship

I don’t remember ever being introduced to the poet Matt Longabucco, nor do I remember the first time we hung out together. I want to have an amazing anecdote about the story of our friendship, but maybe it is just this—one day he wasn’t in my life and the next day he was. I always think about experiences like this when I feel particularly stuck. People you need (or don’t yet know you need) can and do, seemingly, appear. I do, however, remember the first time one of his poems performed a miracle on me.  But I’ll come back to this. I just emailed Matt, thinking he was still in Greece, where it’s the wee hours of the morning, to see if he remembers how we met. He replied immediately from the back seat of a car in NYC “Didn't you visit erica at Bard and we met on the porch of the dorm?”  All I remember is dancing with a blue glitter product smeared on my face. erica and I were together for 5 years. We met at The Poetry Project, where poet-matches of all kinds have been and will continue to be made for as long as it exists. It’s where I have my first memories of Matt, i.e. hearing him read his poems, sometime around 2010 when he became one of those people to show up at the Project and say “oh, here you all are.”

The Parish Hall, where most of the readings are held, is not a beautiful space. There are bars on the windows behind where the poets read, the lights flicker, some of the sockets don’t have bulbs, and all the pictures I take have an awful yellow hue that I try to filter out on Instagram. At times, the ceiling has been water damaged leaving big holes in the paneling, and as recently as last month I watched a mouse run across a full room and leap into the heating unit. However, the space is ample, informal, spare, the acoustics warm, and more often than not people show up—the combination of elements coalesce to create a space that seems to have an ethos of its own, which is “poet, all the focus is on you, we are listening.” According to Anne Waldman, Edwin Denby used to speak of the Project as having cultivated a sophisticated “listening audience” and that he was attuned to the “atmosphere of an audience” through paying attention to things like presence and pause. Simone White looked at me after the Bob Gluck and Luc Sante reading last month, smiled and said, “you really love readings, you’re enlivened by them.” I love when friends see and read back to you the particular feeling that makes a moment like that visible to them. It’s true, I do love readings, and there is no place I’d rather listen to poets read than at the Project. At the panel we recently held celebrating UMBRA, the poet Erica Hunt defined “downtown” as “a series of relationships,” which forms another type of extraordinary feature of the room—the prolongation of the sounds of so many poets, the reverb, the relational energy. One time a poet, I think Cedar Sigo, was reading a passage about rain and it started to rain. Another time a poet referenced a cat and a cat, the garden door was propped open for air, wandered in. The Parish Hall is a phenomenal space.

Matt Longabucco is one of a few poets I have an ongoing dialog with about our work, and one of the poets who I feel closest to. We have common passions. We’re both profoundly interested, as he noted to me recently, in heartbreak, middle age, ecstasy, disappearing “the distance between the poem and the messy person,” and how poetry (i.e. thinking that embraces complexity) can be the thing that provokes us to arrive “at a community worth the name.”  Also, we both write about The Poetry Project as a place.

Let us now orient our bodies toward what has been designated the front of the room. For those of you who haven’t been to the Project, here is a picture from a particularly well-attended event last Fall. This is Rit Premnath. I just texted Matt to confirm my recollection that he was in the audience that night. He was.

Rit Premnath reading for Giant Night: Artists Love Poets

I’ve paid attention to the person at the podium
and I’ve paid attention, at the same time,
to the stairs that diagonally transect the central
of the three arched windows…

Matt Longabucco, from “First Hall”

This is a poem, clearly, about paying attention. The poem goes on to describe the sound of the door opening and closing, noting people’s heads turning back to see who came in late (turns out to be “an old villain”). We all have at least one of those. This poem also puts forth a complex way of extending Denby’s “listening audience” to include a wide array of sensual experiences that occur at the same time as the “person at the podium” is performing. Poetry as Experience.  Later in the poem there is even “one of those big come-from-behind hugs,” noted with ambivalence yet crucial to where the poem needs to go. No one from the theater was using the outside stairs that night, as that detail would have fit the tone of things noted in this poem. Because Matt attends many readings, he brings his memory of listening to poets read while another human, who has work to do upstairs, seems to diagonally transect the performer. It’s a very strange visual experience. And just part of the weirdo set of circumstances we accept as a multi-purpose art space in a church. The poet uses the accretion of the room, in fact, its very infrastructure, to make the poem, and also a poetics that manages to make an aesthetic experience from the most common of our human activities.

I started by saying something that sounds dramatic, that I remember when Matt read a poem, at the Project, that performed a miracle on me. It is a drama that is both sublime and ordinary at the same time, by virtue of circumstances being maintained (through care) for the miraculous, or transformational, to recur. About two years ago, Matt read an untitled poem with the kind of drive only anaphora can create. I was sitting on the floor at the back of the Parish Hall. Unless there are 125 people in the room, if you see me sitting on the floor, it’s not a great sign. I was struggling mightily with the job, like a truck being driven in the wrong gear on the mountainous roads of emotional labor. I was somewhere in the middle of the process of coming back from burn-out city. Matt’s poem begins [note that the lines are not breaking accurately below]:

a good poem by a bad person
a bad poem by a good person
a good poem that turns out to be a bad poem (this sometimes happens) by a good person who turns out to be a bad person (this sometimes happens)
a bad poem that turns out to be a good poem (this almost never happens) by a bad person who turns out to be a good person (this almost never happens)

and continues with a series of oppositional or, better yet, overlapping lines such as:

an accomplished pastiche by a lifelong acolyte of a great, though dangerous, person
a poem in which two lines are perfect by a doomed student

This is ostensibly a clever and comical list poem about some poets “on the scene.” I love that it’s also about gossip. Rather than being gossipy, it calls attention to the act of gossip, the pleasure and/or pain of it. Who is or has done something “good” or “bad” is a judgment almost always made and circulated with partial information. In this poem, the poems are characters that manifest qualities seemingly paradoxical to the poets writing them. Gossip about poems? Did you hear about that “flimsy poem by a serious person?”

This poem is also truly a joy to listen to Matt read, people were laughing, including me, yet its great feat is that it masquerades as a “crowd-pleaser.” It actually proposes some complex thinking about how community, one worth the name, is formed and sustained. The last lines of the poem sounded a wake up call for me that night:

a masterpiece by a person we can’t see
but who sees us very well

This poem is not a satire, as its wish is not to ridicule or expose. I think this is a very humane vision of how to roll with the foibles of a community we feel passionately about. Perhaps it’s even a love poem. Within the moral tensions and the gaps they create, we are asked to find ourselves—examine ourselves, and hold ourselves accountable. The person given the place of honor (the end of the poem) is a person we can’t see, and there are so many reasons this could be so, yet a person doing the work of not only writing, but seeing us, or seeing through us.

Originally Published: January 23rd, 2017

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Stacy Szymaszek is the author of five books: Emptied of All Ships (2005), Hyperglossia (2009), hart island (2015), Journal of Ugly Sites and Other Journals (2016), which was the winner of the Ottoline Prize from Fence Books, and A Year From Today (2018). She has also...