Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Great Chicago MLA Poetry Marathon of 2007

So, this happened Friday:

There it is: the great Chicago Poetry Marathon of '07, held during the Modern Language Association's annual calling together of the professorial tribes. During one of my darker moments in the process of organizing this shindig, I'd written to John Matthias, saying "the whole thing will be demeaning to all concened, I'm sure. I plan to fake a stroke in the first five minutes and be carried out by my minions so as to avoid the inevitable disaster." But my melodramatic acting chops were never called for: everything went off without a hitch. No bar mitzvah or charity fundraiser was in progress when we arrived; the booksellers didn't fall into turf wars at the tables, the caterers didn't drop an urn of steaming decaf onto the PA system, and despite Ray Bianchi and Garin Cycholl's threats, the Chicago poetry mafia decided not to deliver any kind of beat-down to the peace-loving Bay Area types. The guys who arrived with video cameras weren't a poetry-suspicious crew from Homeland Security monitoring us for future deportation to Gitmo, but archivists recording it all for the Chicago Public Libraries. Or so they said. And despite the snow, the crowd turned out in force. From my perch in one of the balconies (where I felt like Evita Peron) I estimated somewhere between two and three hundred people were there, which is, I think, a record. The readers showed up in force too, although Orlando Ricardo Menes was a no-show and Petra Kuppers was delayed (though she's since sent me a link to a video-version of the piece she was going to perform).

Some highlights for me included:

  • Joe Amato and Kass Fleisher delivering pieces written specifically for poetry readings like this. Joe's piece, a stuttering-sort of poem that worked the phrase "this next one is about..." around in different word-jazzy improvisations was a great way to begin the reading; while Kass' piece about the importance of content in writing, with its aggressive bit about "what do they want to reform anyway, except syntax?" drew roars of approval and disapproval in equal proportion.

  • Pierre Joris reading "This Afternoon Dante Will Be Expelled," a poem we published in Samizdat's Rothenberg-Joris issue a few years back. I meant to say tell him how happy this made me, but at exactly the moment he came near me through the crowd I (cold-ridden as I am) was trying too hard not to sneeze.

  • Barret Watten reading a piece written-through William Carlos Williams' poetry, which I'd heard some of a year ago in Tulsa. Can't wait to see this in book form.

  • Don Share reading a poem about his child as a "dependent now sitting in the chair where ambition once sat" (I'm paraphrasing). I saw looks of deep recognition on the faces of my colleagues Davis Schneiderman (a new parent) and Josh Corey (a parent soon-to-be).

  • Philip Metres not reading, exactly, but holding up a series of signs while music played -- surely a shout-out to Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues".

  • Simone Muench beginning her poem about horror movies with the line "Dear Leatherface..." (Simone really understands all this horror movie stuff, and I'm convinced it plays into the big theme of her latest book Orange Girl, which I really should review or blog about soon, given that I've taken probably 2,000 words worth of notes on its narrow margins).

  • Tim Yu, the final reader, letting me and Patrick Durgin have it for organizing the reading along alphabetical lines.

    When it was all over and time to clear out, I finally got to fulfill a fantasy I've had since I first saw The Blues Brothers back in the eighties: I was able to stand in front of a group of people and shout "you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here."

    UPDATE: Philip Metres now has a post up with notes on each of the readers. Ahoy!