Friday, October 13, 2006

Tara Betts on the 10/12/06 CC Prize Winners Reading

Tonight, the audience of about 200 at Proshansky Auditorium at CUNY Grad Center was greeted by Cave Canem's new Executive Director Alison Meyers who introduced one of CC's designated elders, CC faculty member Sonia Sanchez. Sanchez insisted that the room should be packed for these young writers insistent on this challenge of publishing in America, not to mention publishing poetry period. She called on the words of noted Cuban poet Jose Marti and led the audience through an incantation of clicks and ululations interspersed with the first names of the Cave Canem Prize winners that read including winners (from 2000-2006) Major Jackson, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Tracy K. Smith, Amber Flora Thomas and Dawn Lundy Martin. Unfortunately, Natasha Tretheway, who was the inaugural winner of the Cave Canem Prize for Domestic Work (Graywolf Press, 2000) in 1999, was not a part of the reading.

Dawn Lundy Martin was the first reader she began by thanking Carl Phillips, who selected her book A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering as the 2006 winner to be released on University of Georgia Press. Although she began with a longer poem called "After Drowning," there is a measured sort of lyrical heft in her phrases that is compelling and almost as lethal as the glittery skull & crossbones on the black cap cocked to the left and pulled low over her eyes as she read. When the stage lights got turned up, she brightened too and shared two more poems "Bearers of Arms, 1775-1783" and a poem for her father "Last Days."

Since Sanchez opened the reading by reading everyone's bios, there was a continuous flow from one poet to the next, and up next was Constance Quarterman Bridges, who read from Lions Don't Eat Us (Graywolf Press, 2006). Bridges started in a conversational tone to call on her familial ancestors by name as if they spoke to her. "Call our names so they don't forget us," Bridges recalled. She talked briefly about how the book was based on her mother's journal, photographs and notes, and she admitted that writing the poems about her father were more difficult because she had to imagine his voice. "Rhoda's Song," "Albert's Story," the Native American ties to Black families emerging in "Where Wolves Live," the way the earth is always soft to a good man in "Plowing," and "Place," all took the audience on a journey through the poet's bloodline that runs through one narrative of the African American experience.

Amber Flora Thomas picked up another thread in this narrative that drew on the sensuality of details from the earth and memory. Thomas, now living in Alaska, shared a few poems from Eye of Water (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), but was almost bursting to share new poems that she had written in June 2006 during the summer retreat, including "Heart from the Interior View," which explores abstract dimensions of a plasticized actual human heart included in the BODIES exhibit that's been traveling all over the country and is currently in New York City until December 2006. For info on this exhibit, visit the BODIES' website. The other poems just reinforced how Thomas' softspokenness is really about taking the time to notice. The poems were "Swarm" and two ekphrastic poems, namely "Staring at the Red Canna at the Georgia O'Keefe Museum" and another poem about an installation exhibit at Pittsburgh's Mattress Factory, which has been home to some of Cave Canem faculty readings.

Kyle Dargan, who usually has that knowing look like he's about to crack a joke or make Aaron McGruder-like commentary, opened by asking all the fellows and faculty to stand up since most people don't really realize what Cave Canem looks like and what it CAN look like. Around the room there was the range of people, men, women, younger and some more experienced, some looking a little more rugged and some looking more business-like, but always looking like someone familiar to each other, but there were other people who were sitting and watching and maybe that says something to people that Black identity, African or African-American or Diasporic identity has a lot of different faces and so many different voices. Kyle is no exception to that rule. He began by reading Toi Derricotte's "On the Turning Up of Unidentified Black Female Corpses," a poem that still rocks people to hum and make that thoughtful sound at its painful turns. Dargan then delved into poems from The Listening (University of Georgia Press, 2004). (According to Dargan, he was reading from that 'cause that's what's getting sold. Yes, the Dargan that some of us know & love peeked out with his sense of humor.) He read "Search for Robert Hayden" which is about searching through boxes original copies of books by Black poets in a garage and "Old Ways" that still grips me with its last line "It was the sea/ that brought us our pain/ in the first place." He also read "Semiotics" (a reaction to Newark gang violence), "Emaciation" (with its first line-"You can't eat God."), "Folk," "Piccolo Black Art," and the last poem in his upcoming collection "Only Cowboys Stay in Tune Anyway."

Tracy K. Smith followed a tune just fine by not missing a clip in the applause and taking her poised space after Dargan. She read some of the poems from her upcoming book Duende, due for release in June 2007. Other than the title poem, she shared "Slow Burn" and "Theft" inspired by the story of a Native American boy from the Ho-Chunk (meaning "people of the big voice") tribe who was separated from his tribe in order to "improve upon" Indian children like him until members of his tribe found him. Each poem grapples with notion put forth by Frederico Garcia Lorca, and yet I can't help but think of Claudia Rankine and how there's often this unexpected connection in her work that links one poem to the next, even in the dark, unwieldy places that artists that include Smith, Lorca, Rankine and many others.

One of the things that I enjoy most about Cave Canem readings is the convergence of so many streams of influences. History, parents, bloodline, notable Black poets, Native American people, music and duende being the main ones thus far, but poets & MATH?!?! Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon integrated metaphor and mathematics by reading work from her new manuscript Open Interval, a mathematical term that describes a line that doesn't contain its endpoints. The endpoints that Van Clief-Stefanon designates here are "body" and "identity" so it's clear that a linear measurement does not make a whole. Science and math is not just numbers and formulas, but an accumulation of actions, reactions, gatherings and separations, changes and much more. Poems like "Andromeda," the exploding of "electrons that pop from atoms" in a kiss while people mouth something that could be as meaningless as "rhubarb" in "Transit of Venus" and "Garden" are poems that can lead you down the path of the fantasy world that the scientific mind explores. She shared a poem in Afaa M. Weaver's Bop form inspired by Rilke's Duino Elegies. She thanked Afaa from the stage and talked about how she teaches at Cornell and teaches as a volunteer at a men's prison, how her apartment looks down at the projects and up at Cornell University. The Bop she read embodied all that in a form that she unabashedly loves. She also composed a series of sonnets that she has dubbed RR Lyrae sonnets. Now, if you're not into astronomy, RR Lyrae stars are stars that are particularly useful for calculating distances. (You can read more about RR Lyrae stars by visiting and clicking on the rrlyrex.htm folder or check them out via google.) So, yes, I was feeling that all these elements came together like a big bang of creation, like the quote from a Jasper Burns poem that Lyrae cited, "the universe, that cancer of alleleuia."

Major Jackson was the last reader who wasn't seeking an Amen for himself, but instead thanked Cornelius, Toi, Sarah and Carolyn Micklem, the outgoing Executive Director. Jackson pointed her out at the back of the auditorium, and Carolyn humbly waved hi, unknowingly to what became a standing ovation. Although he read mostly from his new collection Hoops (Norton, 2006), Jackson opened with "Rock the Body Body" from Leaving Saturn (University of Georgia, 2002). If you haven't heard this poem, then you don't know what boys will do to get a girl's attention, or at least what they think will get a girl's attention, like trading algebra tutoring sessions for breakdancing lessons. Jackson cited Gwendolyn Brooks as one of his heroes and the final section of Hoops is a series of letters written to her septet stanzas (Check the ABABBCC rhyme scheme, y'all). So, he read "Spring Garden" (which borrows loosely from Brooks' love poem "When You Have Forgotten Sundays") and "Cecil B. Moore." "Cecil B. Moore" not only pokes fun at the penchant for pretentious gadgetry like iPods, GPS systems for cars and "i google therefore i am" but it rattles you with lines like "We are mapping the human genome;/We'll soon design kids to match our homes." In addition to these poems, Jackson also read "Towers"-a poem that was inspired by a story told to Jackson by a Jewish journalist who was active during the Civil Rights Movement who had heard someone say that Black people are unable to think or read in the abstract. The poem's intricacies were an outright refutation. It reminded me somewhat of a poem with a 60-word title that begins with "Composition for White Critics..." in Afaa M. Weaver's Multitudes (Sarabande Books, 2000), which shouldn't be unusual if some of you read the January/February 2002 edition of Poets & Writers magazine.

As Jackson exited, Ms. Sanchez returned in her purple applejack cap crowning her salt & pepper shimmer dreadlocks. She let us know in the words of Grenadian Maurice Bishop that work can inspire us, unite and build us, even as some people aspire to tearing it apart like Grenada, like "a nice piece of real estate." Sanchez made the point that Iraq is seen the same way. She said these facts without ever saying that everyone has a responsibility but went on to point out what Tolstoy said, "Not that a poet should write to the masses, but that they should be intelligible to the masses." She urged us to keep asking what it means to be human, implored poets to rise up, rise up, rise up, warned us that if we heard what Al Gore and Dick Gregory are saying these days that we don't have a long time to save this planet, and trying to save it means care with words and crafting powerful words is more important than ever.

So, many poets listened, read, clapped, laughed. A few signed books. Some broke bread in different parts of Manhattan, but there was a call to remain focused on the work and to appreciate what we have in each other, whether it be in Cave Canem, as members of a larger literary community, or as citizens of the world.

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