On a warm Saturday night in the Mission District, poetry is being celebrated. The LAB on 16th street hosted the second of four installments in husband-and-wife team Donna de la Perriere and Joseph Lease's Bay Area Poetry Marathon. Incredibly, not only was it NOT the only Saturday-night poetry game in town, it wasn't even the only poetry game in a five-block radius. Over at New College of California, on Valencia, a tribute to the late John Wieners was underway, celebrating the release of a newly-discovered journal, A Book of Prophecies. Readers over there included current San Francisco poet laurate Jack Hirschman, New College poetry instructor Micah Ballard, and San Francisco Art Institute professor Bill Berkson, among many others. Back at the LAB, de la Perriere and Lease both teach in the California College of the Arts creative writing program, and three of the readers (Camille Dungy, Brian Strang, and Paul Hoover) teach at San Francisco State University. This means the audience for poetry in the Mission that night was divided among no less than four MFA programs on two opposing axes: NCOC-SFAI at the Wieners tribute, CCA-SFSU at the Marathon. It's too bad. Both readings would have had double the audience, had they been on separate nights.
It's no matter. At the July and August readings in the Bay Area Poetry Marathon, there will be no such conflict, and you'll be able to enjoy the poetry without wondering if they have better wine and cheese or more comfortable folding chairs down the block. Lease and de la Perriere began the Poetry Marathon when they lived in Boston (where it had a much pithier title), and up until this year it was a one-day, all-day event. Although it's not really a marathon anymore per se, the new format makes it much easier to pay full attention.
Donna de la Perriere kicked off the night by promising there would be no police presence this time around: "and if you think I'm kidding, ask someone who was here in May!" she says. Apparently May's Poetry Marathon was interrupted by cops searching for a fleeing armed suspect (not a rare occurence at 16th and Capp). In a voice dripping with sarcasm, de la Perriere repeated a police officer's admonition: "A man with a gun is more important than your little poetry reading." The audience hissed and booed. I was a little alarmed. This crowd meant business. These were people willing to risk death for poetry!
First up was the legendary Diane Di Prima, author of an astonishing forty-three books. Di Prima is sometimes referred to as "the only female Beat Poet," which is both factually wrong and horribly reductive, considering all she's done in the decades since she was a kid running around the Village with those wild boys. Seated in a chair beside the podium to rest her swollen feet, Di Prima has lost none of her fire or power with age. She read from her newest work, the as-yet-unpublished Loba, Book III. Di Prima explained that she began writing the Loba series in 1971, and that the newest poems were mostly written in the middle of the night when she was awakened by aches and pains. "Waking up from pain can be quite delightful because you remember your dreams," she tells us. The new poems were written in fast succession in the weeks just before and after Hurriance Katrina made landfall in 2005. She invoked Robert Duncan, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Mnemnosyne, the mother of the muses and goddess of memory.
Next was Sara Lihz Dobel, a recent CCA grad. Dobel got her poetic education on the slam circuit before getting her MFA, and described the poems for the evening as being from "somewhere between" the two worlds. She declaimed, sans microphone, from memory, standing in front of the podium. Her performance was as polished as a one-woman show, using body and voice and facial expression as much as the words. I noticed Dobel's imagery often involved nostalgic foods: spam sandwiches, white cake and white frosting, watermelon, squash, fruits and vegetables that conjure Nebraska childhood summers and the terrible sexual end of that innocence. "I discharge cherry pits and I miss my mother," read one arresting image.
Third was Jennifer K. Sweeney, who stood shielded behind the podium, with microphone. She explained one poem was about her husband, fellow poet and Parthenon West Review editor Chad Sweeney, who suffered from chronic pain due to a neck injury -- again with these poets and their terrible aches! She wrote of how his pain arrived like a solid object, like another person, and they begged it to leave him, coaxing "as you would a child, if we had one." Sweeney got the first of several audience-wide approving "hmms," for a poem about being four years old and studying the words on a package of marigold seeds: "gold God, Mary good, good God, Mary gold:" it became a religious incantation, the flowers a symbol of prayer and redemption. Her words were deceptively simple and very beautiful.
Next, Brian Strang's works seemed to have a lot to do with science. He wrote a lot about the collision between the natural and technological worlds: about fossils, plate tectonics, insects and animals and plastic and televisions. His language was ultra-precise and amazingly complicated, I won't pretend I understand exactly what it all means ("workers service radios attached their their own faces" --whoa). Like standing before an abstract painting, or listening to a song in a language you don't speak, I didn't have to "get it" to feel a deeper emotional resonance.
Camille Dungy, author of a book with the excellent title What To Eat, What To Drink, What To Leave For Poison, stood WITH the microphone but NEXT TO the podium. "Part of the fun tonight is seeing what everyone does with the microphone," she said. This turned out to be a perfect segue into her first poem abut Billie Holliday. According to Dungy, Billie's stardom was made possible by the advent of high-quality microphones. Any earlier in history and Billie's singing would have been lost to time, since her quiet and evocative deilvery didn't aurally project more than a couple feet. The poem, in Billie's voice, is addressed to a man, absent but remembered, "the music of your fingers strumming my slip's strap."
The final performer was the real crowd pleaser: Paul Hoover, editor of Postmodern American Poetry and author of several books. His latest work, explained, is "56 formal treatments of Shakespeare's Sonnet 56." He began by reading the original and then asking, "did you understand that?" when several people nodded in the affirmative, he looked incredulous. "REALLY?" he asked.
Hoover read a selection of his "formal treatments," including noun plus seven, a form invented by Oulipo. Noun plus seven involves taking a poem and replacing each noun with the one that comes seven definitions after it in the dictionary. "Tomorrow sharpened in its former might" thus becomes "tonality sharpened in its former mildew." Hoover also gave us Sonnet 56 as ballad, haiku, epigram, epitaph, vilanelle, personal ad ("minor melancholia ok"), and in the howler of the night, Hoover rendered Sonnet 56 as Graduate Seminar Course Description. The audience (probably 95 percent of whom were either MFA students or MFA professors) was roaring.
Going to a poetry reading, especially one of poets one hasn't heard of, can be nerve-wracking: is it going to be embarrassingly confessional, or boring, or bad? I'm not normally a poetry person myself. I'm sure there were dozens of allusions and techniques totally lost on me. But there were also sublime moments, along with some interesting and funny ones, and not a dud in the bunch. Lease and De La Perriere clearly put a lot of thought into who they've chosen to read, and if watching skilled people do interesting things with language sounds like your idea of a good Saturday night, I recommend coming to cheer on the Poetry Marathon as it rounds into the final stretch. They even serve beer. Hopefully the cops won't come.
The Bay Area Poetry Marathon continues at the LAB from 7-9pm on Saturday, July 28 and Saturday, August 25. Featured readers will include Lyn Hejinian, Noah Eli Gordon, Dana Teen Lomax, Lisa Robertson, and others. The LAB is located at 2948 16th Street, at Capp. For more information visit thelab.org.