In: For inspiration, Lyrics

Small Press Traffic in SF

Lots of poetry reading last night. First Jen Hofer and Taylor Brady at Small Press Traffic in SF. Jen read from her new chapbook Lawless and an unpublished piece titled “One,” with a little accompaniment from Taylor.

It was a longish reading, and much of the work she read was abstract in a spare, focused way (e.g., sporadic repetition of key terms and phrases relating and commenting upon the passage of a bullet from point A to point B) that required the kind of sustained attention readers are often only willing to bring to the printed text, but after a certain point that phenomenon I remember Ron Silliman discussing some months back set in, where the reading goes on for what at first seems too long but eventually you “get” the poet’s rhythm and the work takes hold of you. The total effect was of a very brief instance slowed down and replayed at different speeds and from varying perspectives, as in one of those high-speed films of a bullet barrelling through an apple. The process reached its climax when Jen and Taylor read the same lines of a passage in antiphonal near-simultaneity—sort of like a split screen sequence with the same event happening on both sides, but staggered by one or two seconds.

Taylor’s reading was similarly conceptual and demanding in its grammatical joinings and elongations of disparate sentence-fragments via an intricate text-shuffling system involving stacks of pages placed strategically on the floor of the stage, which he would pick up at what seemed like random times, continuing a phrase he had begun reading on another page with a phrase from the new page, and crumpling up pages as he went along until there were very few left. The game, if you want to call it that, seemed to be to preserve parsability despite the sometimes brain-taxing extension of the period, so that he generated these long Jamesian baggy-monster sentences full of labyrinthine relative clauses and interjections. Brent Cunningham made an appearance at one point for an effective bit of audience-“participation” comic relief.

After this, it was off to Chris Stroffolino’s apartment for a triple-header reading/party with Rosemary Griggs, Judith Goldman, and Clint Burnham, starting at ten o’ clock. Chris presided over everything from his wheelchair, blue plastic icepack perched on his busted kneecap, shoulders covered by a parti-colored knit wool shawl that someone’s grandma must have made. He had just popped some Vicodin when we got there, and as the evening went on he got increasingly jolly.

Rosemary started off at a couple of minutes to ten, unfortunately before about half the guests got there. She began with a couple of brand-new short poems, and then read the rest of the time from Sky Girl, her Fence book from last year, winner of the 2003 Alberta Prize. The central figure of the poems in this book, which I highly recommend, is the pseudo-autobiographical “Kimberlie,” a fight attendant for a major airline (Rosemary’s own occupation for the past seven years). Other recurring themes include hamsters and a roommate named Mary who is a ghost. I’ve never read anything quite like it. The poems are marked by a highly original blend of sarcastic humor and childlike tenderness that skirts surrealism at times without falling into any escapist traps. Here is “Saint Valentine”:

I won you at the carnival while trying to win a poster of a cat wearing a suit.
It’s that you keep saying you’re tired makes me want to weep.
You won’t sleep when I ask,
You wish something was yours,
We are poor and I braid your soft hair.

From our rooftop our eyes are turned not upward,
but to the lit window of the pastel building across the street.
A man has been sitting at the window for hours looking one way
down the street.

And here is “Flight School,” also in its entirety:

Please, I don’t need to know how to take off or land. Just show me how to steer.

I’d say the dominant characteristic of her sense of humor is the way it’s positioned within an underdetermined subject-space that uses parodic personae to level critique outward and inward at one time. The best illustration I can think of for this comes not from the poems, but from her appended comment after reading “Phuket January 2000,” the last two lines of which are “They want me to shoot razor blades out of my vagina now. / I’m not sure I want to try that.” After a brief pause, she looked out at the audience and said in a faux-self-amused adolescent voice, “I said ‘vagina.’”

Judith read next, giving a repeat performance of the very funny poem she read last weekend at the poetry & politics event, a collection of “notes” on the confusions she has about the phrase “out of the frying pan, into the fire.” She also read a long poem that she claimed to have written earlier in the evening, a jazzy, spazzy diatribe on, among other things, “paying federal income tax.” She was “helped out” by some gentle heckling from David Buuck.

Finally there was Clint, in town for the weekend from Vancouver, giving what was only his second US reading ever. He read a sampling of recent work, including “Feminist Trilogy” (“a poem in four parts,” he remarked) from his Coach House collection Buddyland. Gleefully obscene homolinguistic pyrotechnics, delivered in an understated conversational manner that worked like a speaker-popping hardcore thrashfest.

In addition to the usual crowd of familiar faces, delighted finally to meet Dana Ward, who’s reading with Stephanie Young and James Meetze on Sunday at Canessa Park, and to see Dolores Dorantes again, whom I met last year when she was touring with Jen and Heriberto Yepez and others.

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