Series Reviews

Open on a Rock, Close on a Roll:
The People's Poetry Gathering, 3/30, 3/31, 4/1

Bringing in the Sheaves of the I Are We
by Nicholas Johnson

Ambassadors for the Silenced
By Alyssa A. Lappen

Persecution, Poetry and Romani Experience
by Mark Nickels

Poetry from Prisons
by Elaine Schwager

Tribute to Emily Dickinson
Calypso Workshop with King Wellington
Panel on Women's Experimental Writing and Spirituality
Poetry Manifestos
by Ravi Shankar

Scales of Feeling: The Patti Smith Concert
by Mark Nickels


Series Review Intro

Open on a Rock, Close on a Roll:
The People's Poetry Gathering: 3/30, 3/31, 4/1

poetry makes nothing happen:
--W.H. Auden,"In Memory of W. B. Yeats" (1939)*

Devotées of baseball say their sport is poetry. Therefore, baseball makes nothing happen either. It's a paradigm, a metaphor for life, so claim those most deeply engaged in the public debate--politicos--be they player (Mayor Rudy Giuliani) or commentator (George Will).

I have only three throws
         bless my good right arm

As a boy, Stanley Kunitz pitches stones at his "testing-tree." If the first strikes home, he will be loved; the second, he will be a poet; the third, he will live forever.

After his own standing ovation, Galway Kinnell introduced Kunitz (age 97) at the opening night bash in The Great Hall. The present U.S. Poet Laureate, who is self-taught, began writing conventionally enough and with a "fine excess," but then developed "spareness and rigor." Finding the later work truer, Kinnell reckoned Keats had been wrong about the equivalency of truth and beauty; finding it also more beautiful, he concluded perhaps Keats had been correct after all.

The second biannual festival sponsored by Poets House and City Lore was both more ambitious and more successful than the earlier one in 1999. With dozens of simultaneous events, workshops and readings, they took the most solitary art public in a big way.
From the home plate of The Great Hall to the Poets House mound on Spring Street and three bases as little as 60 feet away, poetry survived on the diamond of its making where executives would never want to tamper, flowed on south, from ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, the raw town that we believe and die in, unconstraining voices merged in a way of happening, a mouth, suited not for forms of grand address, but rather, for allowing the free to praise, the oppressed to remonstrate, and the mute to sign.

We did our best to stay afloat on the current and to divert some of the river, albeit abridged, onto these pages.

-- MH

In Memory of W. B. Yeats


W. H. Auden (1939)


He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant reiver was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.


You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.


Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.


Series Review:
The People's Poetry Gathering, 3/30

Bringing in the Sheaves of the I Are We:
Women's Experimental Writing and Spirituality

Brenda Hillman's books are Loose Sugar, Death Tractates and Bright Existence, all from Wesleyan University Press. She has received two Pushcart Prizes, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, an NEA fellowship and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award for Poetry. She lives in Kensington, California with her husband, poet Robert Hass, and teaches at St. Mary's College in Moraga.



Brenda Hillman

Claudia Rankine is the author of three collections of poetry, including the forthcoming PLOT (Grove Press, 2001), The End of the Alphabet (1998), and Nothing in Nature is Private (1995), which received the Cleveland State Poetry Prize. She teaches at Barnard College in New York City.

Lee Ann Brown is the author of Polyverse (winner, New American Poetry Prize, from Sun & Moon Press 1999) and the editor of small press, Tender Buttons. Her new book is The Sleep That Changes Everything.

The three panelists spoke separately on their views about the relationship of experimental writing and spirituality in women's poetry. Lee Ann Brown began with the influence of Protestant hymns on her work, and also noticed this quality in the timbre of Emily Dickinson's poems. She "heard" a tune in "There is a Zone whose even Years/No Solstice interrupts--" which she sang a capella. Ms. Brown, whose first book, Polyverse, owes much to Dickinson, thought there is a "zone, in sensory impression overload, where spirituality and poetry connect." ("Let down the bars, Oh Death" she gave us a capella too).

She recommended for spirituality going further with old forms, playing, experimenting with them. Her latest book, The Sleep That Changed Everything, is a wish, a wish for a sleep in which everything is transformed. In rewriting hymns, she brings spirituality closer to secular love. Her a capella songs are much like folk songs from the 60's with a tighter lyric line. Her poem, "Sustain Pedal," which she read, was more of a prayer, in which the Dickinson metaphysic mixed with humor and the modern psyche. Her talk concluded with a sing-along of "The Words of Love," based on a work by Will Oldham, set to the music of "Bonny Prince Billy."

Brenda Hillman invoked the language poets, Mallarmé, H.D., the New York School, and the radical use of feminist subject matter. Her hand-out included work by Barbara Guest, Fanny Howe, Norma Cole, Alice Notley, and others as examples of writers in the feminist tradition who made use of space on the page, small illustrations, letters, ciphers, and words askew.

Hillman indicated that these writers, mostly from the late 70's and 80's, found spirit by experimenting with traditional forms, and breaking from them. They achieved this by "radicalizing the use of space, opening up the subject matter of the domestic, but honoring it, expanding it to include the meditative tradition, science and philosophy to supplement biographical details, a re-doing or undoing of sentence and syntax (breaking things up, fragments, a polysyntactic language, not closing off the poem), and finding a lyric sense of self." She called this lyric self a collective, the soul or self in language a "more fluent thing" in which "spirit and style are connected."

The last panelist, Claudia Rankine, found writing in the first-person incompatible with "being spiritual on the page," and felt that a collective sense was necessary: "You would have to see yourself as a 'we'."

She explained that the problem with the language around the spiritual is that it is grounded in language of the secular which makes it impossible to arrive in a unknown place, and with the words "Lord", "prayer," etc., hard to equate it as a place beyond the world that we live in. "In the spiritual poem," she said, "we have to exceed ourselves. The 'I', the 'we' of the poem, is beyond the 'Lord' of the poem."

Rankine pointed to Dante to illustrate that in the spiritual poem, the "I" needs to go beyond this world, and to a poem by Simone de Beauvoir, I believe it was, suggesting that one needs to enter the self to destroy the self to get beyond and arrive at something bigger, beyond the grasp. In the process, you know that you can't arrive anywhere, and also that there's nowhere to arrive, because if you do, there's nowhere to arrive back to.

Turning to another look at the "I", in a poem by Christine Hume (Barnard New Women Poets Prize, March 2000), the "I" goes through the poem, she said, inserting itself into the object, over and over again and comes out on some other side: "I am climbing into my own humming."

While all three panelists claimed it was impossible to describe women's experimental writing and spirituality, by the time each had spoken, everyone in the room came away with three very distinct and variously memorable descriptions. (Compare Ravi Shankar's impressions of this same event.)

-- NJ

A review of Claudia Rankine's The End of the Alphabet appears at Brenda Hillman's Loose Sugar is reviewed at and Lee Ann Brown's Polyverse at


Series Review:
People's Poetry Gathering, 3/30, 3/31, 4/1

Ambassadors for the Silenced
By Alyssa A. Lappen

City Lore, Poets House and thirty-nine other organizations and foundations hosted the bi-annual, three-day People's Poetry Gathering at Cooper Union and myriad other nearby locations on March 30, 31 and April 1. Nearly 150 events crowded the three-day poetry extravaganza and more than two hundred poets lectured, discussed, read--and that says nothing of dozens of musical readers and musicians.

The staggering wealth of artistic genius presented in this forum, with events stacked together by as many as five or more into hour-long time slots, made it impossible for one person to see it all. Yet the feast of poetry--eight, ten and twelve hours a day--enabled me to happily miss lunch on all three days. I hungered for the poems, not food.

What spoke most to me were the poetries of downtrodden and endangered people, often in endangered languages. Of these, I unofficially dub U Sam Oeur poet laureate. This slight Cambodian poet, a survivor of the Pol Pot regime who committed his horrifying experiences to Khmer verse in Sacred Vows, gave one of the most soulful readings I was privileged to hear. "I am the ambassador of the silenced," he said at the opening of his reading, noting that the Cambodian people remain imprisoned in their own land. He would read first in English (translations by Ken McKullough) and then chant his poems a cappella in a voice as vibrant as it was heart- piercing.


What a lowing my wife put up
when she gave birth to the first twin.
Very pretty, just as I'd wished, but those fiends
choked them and wrapped them in plastic.

This stanza from "The Loss of My Twins" seared my ears as he read the clean, crisp language of loss.

That language was equaled at many other readings throughout the three days. Softspoken Chilean poet Cecilia Vicuna, for example, shared the work of several Mapichu poets of the Argentine and Chilean Andes, for whom she said the disappearance of forest and language, are synonymous and inseparable. Of the twelve languages extant in this region of South America at the time of the Conquistadors, she said only three survive today. "They believe that language falls from the trees, and so, if you cut down the trees, you lose the language."

Some of the poetry shared last week hail from literatures long dead. At another session on ethnopoetics, Vicuna brought the house to its feet with her rendering of what may be the sole remaining poem of the ancient Aztecs, recorded in Kipu, writing made not of paper and pencil or papyrus and ink, but of knots from methodically spun wool. The Spaniards, she explained, burned entire libraries of knotted literature, and murdered the priests, the only ones who could read them. Thus, virtually none of a vast literature survived. In decades of study, she reported, she has found only one poem from that period. Although read without a translation, its power was enthralling.

Deaf poet Joseph Castronovo similarly resurrected a voice unknown to most--the poetry of hands enshrined in an ancient Etruscan sarcophagus. A man who communicates silently through the dramatic American Sign Language, he can read much not comprehensible to the hearing world. The hands of two figures, entwined, he said through ASL translators, spell out phrases of life and afterlife--in spatial rhymes.

Still others shared languages still very much alive, but endangered in some aspects, among them, Yiddish and Irish. Yiddish lives within Hasidic Jewish communities worldwide, said Irene Klepfissz, but they use the everyday and spiritual tongues, while the rich literary lingua that exploded into life in the mid-19th Century, died almost entirely in the Shoah, along with three million Yiddish-speakers. Work survives from dozens of Yiddish poets--from well known writers like Abraham Sutzkever, Chaim Grade and Yitskhok Perets, to lesser known masters like Rokhl Korn and Yisroel Shtern; but few poets today write in Yiddish. Similarly, Irish inhabits everyday life in many villages in Ireland, but poets like Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and John O'Donohue are rare.

From all these voices, one remarkable fact grew eminently clear: Indigenous languages can be inhabited even by strangers. O'Donohue explained it like this, in terms which themselves danced on the edge of a poem:

Language comes from that restless space between loneliness and experience. It lives through people, but without them as well. Poetry is travel to the inner language, and every poem is a threshold crossing between the ancient and the [now]. Even when one does not understand these languages, the poems speak.

Indeed they do, not least when the poems are spoken by the Roma, a people known to most through the nearly mythic stereotypes of Carmen and Hugo's Esmerelda, but a people largely impoverished, landless, and illiterate, struggling for basic human rights worldwide. The Roma's five hundred years of slavery in Eastern Europe remain a secret of history that the voices of Romany poets Katja Tanmateos, Gregory Kweik (read by Carol Silverman) and George Kaslov, unlock.

These and others anthologized in Roads of the Roma describe an endless cycle of running from hatred that is renewed in each new place, even in America, a cycle that has denied most of millions of Roma worldwide homes, jobs, schooling--and in the case of the Kosovo Roma, even the deserved right to international refugee status. Their language of loss, like so many others, changes easily into the cadences of music. Appropriately, one of the last programs of the weekend a concert by Szaszcsaras, a Hungarian Rom family of master violinists whose strings, like poetry itself, pluck at the heart.

Alyssa Lappen's chapbook, The People Bear Witness, won the 2000 award sponsored by Ruah: A Journal of Spiritual Poetry.

~ . ~

Series/Event Review:
The People's Poetry Gathering, April 1, The Great Hall

Persecution, Poetry and Romani Experience
by Mark Nickels

Not long ago a poll was conducted to determine which, among the usual suspects, was the least liked ethnic group in America. The pollsters even inserted a test group, fictional (the Wislings, or something, but then that sounds like Beowulf). The fictional group did better than "Gypsies", who ranked dead last. At least among pinheads everywhere, the appellation "gypsy"--from time immemorial and to date--conjures a ugly incubus in the collective unconscious that transcends even imagination.

The same is true even of non-pinheads near and dear. My dad, a gentle man, told of how the appearance of a gypsy caravan on a hill near his boyhood farm in the Midwest caused everyone along those rural section roads to lock their doors.

"Gypsies", more properly Rom, as they call themselves, are among us and have a reality distinct from our gaje folklore of the marginalized in the West, the way the old crone down the street, alleged to have put razor blades in Halloween apples, turns out to be a kind old woman who grew really enormous sunflowers. Little boys grow up, sometimes, but sadly the Rom are still burdened with our canards.

By the time I got to the Great Hall, work by a contemporary Rom activist, born in southern Romania, was being read by host Carol Silverman. Gregory Kwiek says of himself, "I understand the history behind my problems. Equipped with this history I have been able to fight my own fears."

Like most Rom, Kwiek left school early, at twelve, and writes fluidly and with generous amounts of anaphora of the experience, as he puts it, of "the common Rom." Several of his poems were read in Rom, a language with three dialects closely related to Sanskrit. The reader was George Koslov, a businessman and metalworker turned activist and a member of the UN Federation for Rom Rights and Recognition.

Kwiek’s poem, "New Life", charts identity terror as Kwiek balances life as a Rom activist with his life as a "traditional man." "O Lord, I want to eat from both plates." In "Homeland", the pain of belonging to the West’s most ambulatory culture is sharply delineated. "Through her I have come into this world, but I have never seen her."

The reading took a darker shading still with the appearance of Paul Polanksy, a non-Rom advocate, student of Romani culture, and refugee from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Polanksy's involvement with the Romani when heard of the "death camps" (whether they were really that, in the evilest sense or--bad enough--just fatal places to be, I couldn't say) run by the Czech government in the mid-Sixties, to harbor Kosovo Roma refugees. Called to account years later for the existence of these camps, Czech President Vaclav Havel was unable to point to any survivors.

Polanksy found a hundred, and read their poems, or testimonies. Picked up by the UN for fact-finding missions in the latest incarnation of the Balkan mess, Polansky has little good to say of his former employers, NATO, or the U.S. The Rom, as usual, seem despised by all parties and virtually invisible in world testimony, a ghost people. Even after the arrival of NATO peacekeeping forces, thousands of Rom homes were destroyed by one or the other warring ethnicity, yet NATO ordered them to return to rings of warm ashes.

In one of Polanksy’s own poems, he dryly lists the chemical contents of U.S. sea rations given to Rom refugees. Noting the livid yellow trial of shit on the way to the latrines, Polanksy quotes a mother, "U.S. aid has a long shelf life aboard ships, but not in gypsy children’s stomachs."

One wonders what the complexities must be of administering benevolence to an insular ethnic group whose very survival has been helped, historically, by governments' inability to locate and count them. Yet, the Nazis located hundreds of thousands of Rom and kept efficient count of the casualties. Why then is compassion so often bungled?

Affecting as all this was, of course, the problem is that when indignation passes through several sets of hands without a context begins to look like it's happening at the other end of a long tunnel. Still, this testimony served a vital purpose. The brutal facts of ethnic displacement get short shrift in American McNews. One noted the absence on stage of Rom witnesses other than Mr. Koslov; a panel discussion scheduled to have occurred was cancelled due to lack of time.

A darkly jeweled context was provided when an extraordinary band of six Rom musicians called "The Band from Szaszcsavas." This Transylvanian town contains only about a thousand Rom, Romanians and Hungarians. Three elders in the band have forty-seven grandchildren between them--and they're all related. Playing what appeared to be three violins, two viola-like instruments bowed perpendicular to the sternum, and a double bass, they performed an extraordinary cycle of Hungarian, Romanian and Romani celebratory music.

Rhythmically complex, dotted, shambling, seductive, with bespoke bluesy intervals arrived at over centuries in their own bee-shot meadows and forests under the gun. Of course, this is the tonal world that helped birth Bartok's string quartets, but Sidney Bechet too would have fallen under an enchantment had he heard this--as far from "gypsy" restaurant music as crummy "lite" jazz is from him--the violas laying down long chordal bottoms while the violins twined over the top like rampant, irrepressible, valorous and foliate life.

I wanted to buy a CD but could only produce two halves of a twenty, ripped somehow, and no scotch tape to be had. Seek out "The Band from Szaszcszavas", testament to survival amid time's long cycles.


~ . ~

Series Review:
The People's Poetry Gathering

Poetry from Prisons
April 1, 2001, 3 P.M.
Panel: Fielding Dawson, Hettie Jones, Janine Pommy-Vega

by Elaine Schwager

All on the panel have been teaching in prisons for many years: Fielding Dawson, for 17 years in Attica, Hettie Jones for more than a decade at Bedford Prison for Women, and Janine Pommy-Vega, directs a program to help find placements for poets interested in working in prisons, and runs poetry workshops for imprisoned teenagers, as well as adults. All agreed that everyone who teaches poetry in prisons comes away with more than they give.

Supplies are limited, so since writing requires only paper and pencil becomes the most accessible art, it sometimes the only way for inmates to escape mental and physical confinement, to redefine themselves, and to find in their words a meaning to their life that is most often not listened to or cared about. Janine emphasized that prisons are run like Feudal Systems with their own rules and are not that receptive to letting outsiders in. The poetry workshop becomes an oasis of freedom, a space to non-judgmentally experience whatever it is goes on deep in an inmate's soul, a place to experience the humanity, creativity, and spirituality of the self, even in an environment that continually condemns.

The panelists read from published anthologies of prison poetry. Lines of great emotional impact hung in the room long after they were uttered.

One prisoner talked about "giving up everything you never really had." Jen Warren, from Bedford Hills wrote, "My heart explodes in a million directions of calm as I watch his fist move in a direct line to my face." Amy Johnson cautioned: "To live unloved makes us cold, cruel."

Janine who worked with children in prison, and Hettie who worked with women raised questions about a systems that locks up the young and separates mothers from their children, often leaving them unattended for most of their formative years. One 14-year-old girl, Michelle, locked up in Staten Island prison, wrote a poem called "The Judge" in which she wonders how one person can have the power to rule the life of another, when they know only what is on the page in front of them, not how she laughs, dances and what is in her heart.

Another woman imprisoned for over ten years writes about the difficulty of leaving after so many years and of getting used to "the wonderful colors you only enjoyed as a crayoning child" and the difficulty of getting used to real food or gourmet food. She concludes that "even though you leave the prison, the prison will never leave you."

The freedom of speaking out, shouting out what is really in them is expressed when one woman says, "I was born the minute I used my voice," and reflects, "As for Susan Smith, she too has a voice. She just didn't use it."

A mother, feeling the agony of being separated from her son, writes "My freedom may be limited, but I am your passage."

The fragments of poetry shared in this meeting were passages to a kind of freedom one can only know through those grappling with the conditions that have led to being deprived of it, and that in circumstances which most often cruelly deny their deeper humanity.


Poet Elaine Schwager worked at Riker's Island as a prison psychologist and taught English literature and writing to prisoners from Sing Sing. She also worked in Family Court as a psychologist.)


~ . ~

Series Review:
The People's Poetry Gathering, 3/30, 3/31, 4/1

Tribute to Emily Dickinson
by Ravi Shankar

Nothing augurs April like rain, and after being waylaid by a capricious 4 train, I emerged into it and sought shelter in the high-ceilinged chamber of the Poets House. The event, a tribute to Emily Dickinson given by Brenda Hillman and Galway Kinnell, was an apt prelude to the marathon weekend that is the People's Poetry Gathering. After all, dear Emily, as Poets House director Lee Briccetti reminded us, is often cited as the mother of American poetry, her occlusions and lyrical terseness the counterpart to Papa Whitman's capacious cataloguing. Briccetti then introduced Hillman who began by debunking that notion: For her, Dickinson was an anti-authoritarian figure, closer to a naughty older sister who crooked her finger towards rapturous pastures, gleaming a look of mischief.

Another incongruity: The first thing I noticed about Hillman, who teaches writing at St. Mary's College in Moraga, California, and is the author most recently of Loose Sugar, was that she has a distinctive voice, a pip, wee and lark-like, so at odds with weighty statement that an audience instantly focuses on her every utterance. By a process of triangulation through her husband, poet Robert Hass, I thought of Job's unnamed wife, both reviled and revered for advising him, "Curse God and die!" Hass translates Czeslaw Milosz, whose gravity Joseph Brodsky described as Biblical: "Even if one strips his poems of the stylistic magnificence of his native Polish (which is what translation inevitably does) and reduces them to naked subject matter, we still find ourselves confronting a severe and relentless mind of such intensity that the only parallel one is able to think of is that of the Biblical characters--most likely Job."

But I digress. Hillman was far from cursing God, and in fact, placed Dickinson within the Protestant inward tradition, drafted into the service of a power greater than she. According to Hilman, the meaning and difference in her poems, slippery and profound, comes from within that nodule of soul that will not yield, that reconfigures the music of the hymnal into a song so individuated as to be universal. Hillman also spoke about the Dickinson's famous dashes as an elocutionary device, providing instructions on how to hear the poem. As she spoke, she punctuated her observations by offering up a selection of Dickinson's lyrics, from popular choices ("There's a Certain Slant of Light") to more personal ones ("The Zeroes--taught us--Phosphorus"), reimbuing the words of the Amherst prophetess with a quiet vitality that further heightened the audience's attention.

Galway Kinnell, by contrast, brought a touch of bluster to Dickinson, asserting, among other things, that she wanted desperately to publish and that we have no character for the squiggles (what typesetters later interpreted as dashes) which constitute the chief punctuation of her 1,775 lyrics. The latter I have little trouble believing, but as to the former, my sense is that the avocation of the poet is prayer-like and private, an argument for or against the world that would take place (and should take place) heedless of, and often in spite of the lure of notoriety. It is true that Dickinson was vastly ahead of her time, so much so that poor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in his zeal to have a classification system for all poetry, deemed Emily's lyrics, "too delicate, not strong enough to publish," thus quashing the incipient career of one of our greatest poets.

In fact, when Dickinson's poems were finally published posthumously, her leaps of syntax were edited out. Only in the Thomas Johnson edition, brought out in the 1940's, were her poems restored to their original form. Regardless, the claim that she desperately sought validation from the world seems to me a misconstruction. Kinnell also read the poems much differently than Hillman had, bringing attention and a staccato delivery to the spine of iambic tetrameter that holds the syllables together. He emphasized that Dickinson had expanded the scope of rhyme more significantly than anyone since Shakespeare--a pertinent point since our neo-formalists and slant-rhyme practitioners can invariably trace their roots to her. Kinnell's final point was that Dickinson's influence had extended the range of lyricism; after her, the lyric became capable of accommodating just about anything.

By virtue of their contrasting styles and areas of accentuation, the two-person panel opened a great entry into the weekend's festival. Long after the scraping of folding chairs parted the way to the nearest exit/next event, Dickinson's words still hung in the air like a palpable ghost.

(Poet Ravi Shankar edits Drunken Boat,

Series Review:
People's Poetry Gathering: 3/30, 3/31, 4/1

Calypso Workshop with King Wellington
by Ravi Shankar

Ah, fortuitious fruit of mango mishap, King Wellington, the scheduled steel and brass ace, was bushwhacked by storms in the islands, leaving us a replacement whose name eludes me just as, due to the flu, his presence eluded us. Steve Zeitlin, executive director of City Lore, reached for the cell to confirm a replacement for the replacement, a third choice, a man who is, as it turned out--oh lucky star!--without parallel in the calypso world. The event became one of the highlights of the People's Poetry Gathering for me and, it seemed, for the small crowd graced with his presence.

He's called 'Sugar' because his voice is so sweet, called 'Aloes' because, like the taste of aloe vera, he can be a bitter man, a thorn in the side of his government. Sugar Aloes, dead ringer for Ice-T, strode in slicked out in a subtly spangled sharkskin coat, tailored slacks, two hoop earrings, a few gold teeth, a spruce goatee, coolie cap, his chest hung with gold medallions ornamented with a hooded cobra. The man looked mean--plus damn natty.

Now calypso is the music and poetry of the true carnival, Trinidad and Tobago's, out of which all others, even the Brazilian, spring. And at each carnival, a king of calypso is crowned, to reign for a year as the voice of his people. Aloes has just missed winning twice. Many blame politics for his second-place finishes at the state-sponsored festival: He was widely considered to have swept away the competition. His vocal activism for the less fortunate and excoriation of any oppressive regime has placed him on the government's black list and as such, the accolade of top dog hasn't landed on him.

Aloes told us how he was fighting the censorship of calypso, how the government had a list like Richard Nixon's that he was on, and he spontaneously broke into magnetic song to drive home his points or pay tribute to many calypso greats who have preceded him, colorful artists with sobriquets such as The Mighty Sparrow and Lord Melody. He described how calypso was more than music but a culture, the authentic vein of Caribbean music from which branch reggae and ska.

The roots of calypso are in slave spirituals, in the unbroken song of those who had just been whipped in the plantation fields for singing. "You got to know your roots," he explained, "to know where you're at, before you can find out where you're headed." Currently there are a few new sounds in calypso: chutney soca in the dance halls, rapso in the streets, and different kinds of calypso singers, mainly lewd and humorous balladeers. Aloes has chosen the path, most difficult, of striving for social change, leading the youth and giving meaning to his hours. He is ecstatic to see the music he loves spread to infect new souls, claiming the island people take great pride in seeing even hybridized calpyso hit the American airwaves in the form of Harry Belafonte or Who Let the Dogs Out?

Sugar Aloes, a man whose intimidating vibe was belied by a gold-toothsome grin, had the audience in the palm of his hand throughout, delving into history and culture in his unhurried patois while breaking into songs that made both protest and the perils of drug use sound smooth as velour. He brought out a guitar near the end and played a few numbers, finally ending the panel to intense applause. He then did a brisk business selling his CD's and lingered to speak with anyone who approached him, which was nearly the entire audience. We all seemed to want to get close enough to him to soak in his energy and I, for one, thanked the cosmos for grounding King Wellington, leveling his replacement, and giving me the chance to hang with the great Sugar Aloes.


Ravi Shankar edits Drunken Boat,


Series Review:
The People's Poetry Gathering

Panel on Women's Experimental Writing and Spirituality
by Ravi Shankar

Participants included Brenda Hillman, Claudia Rankine and Lee Ann Brown. Brown was the first to speak, or rather, sing, as she pervaded the room with her lucid gospel tenor. She described poetry as a timeless zone, a place in which cosmic want-ads are published and answered, like a wish or prayer. In her own work, the hymn, a connection to her upbringing, has been very important and she demonstrated this influence by singing a handful of lyrics and even, admirably, getting the audience to join in a chorus:

I pledge allegiance to the lamb
And also to the other one.
The march is long and now I stand
Again on ground fresh broken.

Nothing quite like a mass of tentative, even tone-deaf voices, gradually acquiring strength and confidence, to eventually become an entity that transcends each individual voice. Brown was fascinating because she provided just a glimpse of the vista that the People's Poetry Gathering would explore, a landscape, post-troubadour, where song and poem were entangled, stripped from one another and grafted back together.

led the second discussion, and handed out a packet of work by women poets: Barbara Guest, Fanny Howe, Patricia Dienstfrey, Norma Cole, Alice Notley, Kathleen Fraser, Ann Lauterbach and Harryette Mullen. We were unable to get to discussing most of them, thus underscoring the fact that for such wealth of material as was on display all weekend long, a fifty-minute panel could not suffice. Hillman spoke of how her connection to experimental writing began in Berkeley, where she would eagerly await each issue of However magazine, fascinated by the new poems that she found there, lyrics that radicalized the use of space and opened up the page in a painterly fashion (as Barbara Guest does).

For Hillman, the subject matter also began to open up. On the heels of the age of confessionalism, poets were beginning to use science and philosophy to write a poetry that supplemented the quotidian details of a life lived with a precise examination of the language spoken. Hillman called on Kristeva and Derrida as thinkers who helped her redo or undo syntax , helping her achieve a more fluid sense of collectivity and potential identity. Her entire discussion was captivating, if a little breathless, and I, for one, was very happy to have her packet of poets to bring home in my doggie bag.

The last member of the panel, Claudia Rankine, was also, putatively, the sternest. Whereas Brown had infused the room with song and Hillman with levity and praise, Rankine was resolute, intense, steely even. It was as if she took poetics and spirituality to be a matter of life and death (and, in a certain way, she does).

She began by discussing the difficulty in finding appropriate poets to discuss; she had thought of bringing Hillman's Death Tractates, but decided that the poems in that volume were addressed to someone, a quality that in her estimation sapped a lyric of spirituality. Rankine, a kind of polymath, discoursed on the near impossibility of transcribing the spirit, which is related to the breath and consequently, to life. To do so, a poet needs to create a sphere where no final identification is possible, where meaning emerges tremulous as a butterfly and yet resists being pinned to any corkboard. For Rankine, the first person is complicated with too much static to be of spiritual use: The 'I' as Meister Eckhart once stated, "must lead itself to execution."

In Rankine's vernacular, whatever is represented by the first-person pronoun is that which needs to exceed itself and arrive at the liminal place of threshold, where absolute singularity prevails, yet cannot be defined. Accomplishing such a goal in language --and again, a theologian, Martin Buber, puts it best: "The man who experiences has not a part in the world. For it is "in him" and not between him and the world that the experience arises"-- seems to be an unattainable feat since the bank of words we draw upon to make poems are the same words that we codify and sully in daily, secular use. How from such contaminated shards of sound can we embody an irreducible secret? Rankine ultimately chose for her example, Lyn Hejinian's Happily, a mustard yellow book she carries, dog-eared, in her purse. She ended the panel by reading a passage from it.

(Poet Ravi Shankar edits Drunken Boat,


Series Review:
People's Poetry Gathering: 3/30, 3/31, 4/1

Poetry Manifestos:

Presented by Charles Bernstein, Mary Ann Caws, Hettie Jones, Tracie Morris, Jerome Rothenberg, and Cecilia Vicuña (Poets House)

by Ravi Shankar

The last event I attended, after what had been quite a marvelous weekend, was a panel on the famed manifesto, tool of the revolutionary and mode of the eccentric, and I arrived, expectant, still high on a host of events (Stanley Kunitz's powerful reading, my discovery of American Sign Linguist John O'Donohue, the pleasure of hearing Jean Valentine, the thrill of chilling with calypso marvel Sugar Aloes) and ready to settle into a discussion of the high-velocity, supercharged art of the manifesto.

Mary Ann Caws, anthologist most recently of Manifestos: A Century of Isms, introduced the panel by discussing the reverberating energy of the manifesto: it is a thundering, a litany, a toggling between binaries (either/or, us/them), a Blast like the title of Wyndham Lewis's short-lived journal whose pages gave birth to "vorticism", a term coined by Ezra Pound to express the whirlpool of human imagination, "the point of maximum energy." Caws spoke of some of the most potent manifestos in history, like Zola's J'Accuse, Stein's How to Write and Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto, before passing the mike to Bob Holman.

Juiced up on an inner battery, Holman delivered a fine rendition of Khlebnikov's "The Trumpet of the Martians," expelling the words with the gusto of a fire hydrant, setting a standard for entertainment and assault that, unfortunately, was not lived up to by the majority of the panel. Still, in Carolee Schneeman's reading of Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément's "Sorties," l'écriture féminine resounded like a snare drum in the room. David Goldfarb, next up, read his translations of the heralds of Futurism in Poland, Anatol Stern and Aleksander Wat's "Primitivists to the Nations of the World and Poland." His delivery was punchy and characterized by brevity, and the manifesto was wacky and brilliant:

the great rainbow monkey named dionysis expired long ago. we announce that we are throwing out his rotten legacy. . . . music is two bodies beaten together, everything else is noise we praise understanding and therefore throw out logic, that limitation and cowardice of the mind. nonsense is wonderful by virtue of its untranslatable content, which brings our creation into relief with breadth and strength. . . . let's open our eyes. then swine will seem more enchanting to us than a nightingale, and the gga of a gander dazzles us more than swansong.

After Goldfarb stepped up, the next reader was Tracie Morris. In my estimation, she was the pivot on which the entire event turned.

I first saw Tracie Morris a few days earlier at the Opening Night Bash with the ASL poetry troupe, Flying Words, Nuala ní Dhomhnaill, Ed Sanders and Galway Kinnell. Morris had been very obviously sick, drawing from an armada of Kleenex in her pocket to gather each sniffle, and I admired her fortitude in sticking it out solely for the love of poetry. During the panel on Manifestos, she seemed to have gotten over the external manifestations of her illness, but not the internal pangs of irritability. She seemed none to be happy to be at the reading and began, justifiably, by lamenting the lack of black women in Caws's anthology.

Surely there have been African-American woman writers of manifestos worthy of inclusion (Frances Beal, Mari Evans and Sistah Souljah come to mind), and the very act of creating a manifesto--which is commensurate with taking back what's rightfully yours, asserting an identity for the sake of empowerment, and howling in neon a collective's agenda--seems to lend itself to use as a potential act of power for a marginalized group. Morris's attitude was one of anger, though, at this perceived omission, and so she had chosen instead W.E.B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk.

In case you are not familiar with this particular piece, it serves to repeat that DuBois was a remarkably prescient thinker, proclaiming in 1903:

Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.

That treatise, though, for all its power and perception, had one thing wrong with it for a 50-minute the panel: it was about three times the length of anything else presented. Morris launched into her reading with full zeal, but (lacking Bob Holman's battery) began to run down, simply reading the sentences as they appeared before her eyes. Soon the crowd started to drift. Coughs followed chair scrapes, doodled dogs, gazes into the middle space, cuticle study. Yet as the tics proliferated, Morris ploughed on, intensified, it seemed, by the fraying attention of the crowd. I don't know whether she knew how long the piece ran or how much time she was allotted, but she read for over twenty minutes without a let-up.

Worried looks crept over people's faces: How are the kids? What time is dinner? Will this thing be over in time for Poetry Across Borders (Middle Eastern Poetry with Ammiel Alcalay and Najeeb Shaheen)?

It wasn't. Amazingly though --and this has real value as sociological data I think--when Morris finally ended, she got the loudest and most protracted applause. Now whether the thunder ensued from relief or from appreciation, I can't say. But one thing seemed certain: There was a gulf in that room between Morris and the majority of people listening to her, but rather than dealing with it on any level, the tension was sublimated with waves of applause.

Nick Piombino followed, with his personal manifesto, "Writing and Remembering," an exploration of the way language can be made to listen to itself. By that point, I was barely listening to it. The readings had begun to resemble one another, though not because of any shortcoming on the part of any one of them. I had simply been pulverized by poetry, and was ready to stick my head in a sink to let the words drain from my ears. Still, there were many other good readers, among them, Edward Hirsch reading Edmond Jabès's "To Be in The Book," Cecilia Vicuña's reading of Mario de Andrade's "Hallucinism," Jerome Rothenberg's reading of Tristan Tzara's "Seeing," and of course, Hettie Jones reading Frank O'Hara's ever effervescent, "Personism":

[Personism] was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it, I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It's a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.

Charles Bernstein read the final piece, his own "Conspiracy of 'Us'," which remains, I think, one of the still-viable and provocative manifestos written in recent history. At this point, though, my mind was porous, my shoes edgy; I would have stirred up some revolution after the event--or at the very least some cocktails--but, unfortunately, I had to go home to take a nap.

(Poet Ravi Shankar edits Drunken Boat,


Series Review:
People's Poetry Gathering
Patti Smith Concert (April 1)

Scales of Feeling
by Mark Nickels


In answer to a shouted request to say something about April Fool's, Patti Smith declined. "I really don't have time for that," she said dryly at the culminating evening of the People's Poetry Gathering at Manhattan's Washington Irving High School. She went on to say what she did have time for--the stale joke about the restaurant on Mars having no atmosphere--as though she'd been collared by a seven-year-old entranced by wheezy Catskills shtick on the way into the school auditorium. It somehow becomes a sacred monster--hard-bodied, combat-booted, in black, and fifty-something--to self-ironize on either side of her songs, a bland saltine between opulent, strong, dry and potent vintages, an ardor sandwich.

It is patronizing bull to think to reward performers of this ilk with praise about longevity. No one says that to old jazz cats and kittens, or divas. Smith's Seventies poems and songs show somebody in it for the long haul, conscious of herself as an American and an artist, always referencing forbears. Answering to no one in particular, why the hell shouldn't she be liberating the mixed camps of younger and older in ten years, spitting occasionally on the stage like a backwoods Victoria Woodhull? I hope she is.

The event was given its frame by the appearance on the stage of one of P. Smith's old friends, evidently an Urmentor, Janet Hamill, with her band, "Moving Star" (Jay LoRubbio, Sean Healy, Bob Torsello). (Hamill's website is "Lost Ceilings" <>.) The half-dozen songs presented by Hamill own less the flavor of Flowers of Evil by her chosen Magus, Baudelaire, than, say, the orientalism of St. John Perse, or even Maldoror. The atmospheric "Red Town" featured Smith's Lenny Kaye on the oud.

It was Janet who introduced an entranced Patti to Chuckles B. in the presumably overlit cafeteria of Glassboro State College sometime before the Summer of Love. This was still in the long sunset of the golden age of delinquent littérateurs walking juvie on their toes ("Like a squirrel," my older brother instructed) with cheap, well-thumbed copies of Rimbaud translated by Varèse or Fowlie, or the Enid Starkie bio bulking oversized pockets. (I carried those books too, but it was ten years later and my delinquency [suggested alt: miscreance] was then mostly showbiz: "I never done good things, I never done bad things.")

Hamill's tight ensemble moved expertly through her long strophes that made one a little homesick for something or other, specifically for an era of seeming psychic possibility, the excitement of travel in real and imaginary realms. This poetry wants us to determine the half-life of glorious old mystic transports, activated by night drives. Once if not presently a librarian and a spoken word advocate, Hamill is an untheatrical, even matronly, yet effective performer who lets her texts speak for themselves in a dignified, sinuous Sprechstimme. This rock serves the verse, high clearance for the tines of the tallest letters to get through, the music doing what song does, allowing the phrases to keep their ardor and pass it on to the next.

And then, five very tall and greyhound-like people loped onto the stage, Smith at center, on the left her career-long, standby guitarist Lenny Kaye, and Oliver Ray, bassist Tony Shanahan, and a substitute drummer for J.D. Doherty (away chasing the Loch Ness monster). After a little self-deprecation and a stump speech for WBAI--"I don't listen to it, but we need it!"--Smith gave one of the most arresting performances I've ever seen, which moreover occupies the number one spot among its kind in terms of being "on book." Smith cradled a trade paper of her collected works and served up "Birdland", from her first album, "Horses" (1975), the mounting, electrifying spiritual testament and UFO abduction fantasy, written before abduction fantasies sold paperbacks.

Her voice has lost nothing, supple and powerful, reedy or full-throated, with twenty percent more grandeur than most other voices, an amber-colored oriflamme. Compared to anyone more recent to the scene, she seems like an elm and hickory witch of the deeps, an exhorter from a car window maybe, not a chariot, but whose lessons would overpower I-80 and splinter toll gates. As with all great performers, there's something atavistic in her keening, the woman at the head of an Irish bread riot, singing as necessary as bread. In the hands of a great performer the audience was at once safe, but nonetheless made to levitate at the end of this song.

Smith moved on to "Beneath the Southern Cross", a scorching number from a later album, "Gone Again" (1996). "Boy Cry Wolf" ("Gung Ho", 2000) plaintively concluded,

Innocence had its day
Innocence had its day

The powerful "Don't Say Nothing" ("Peace and Noise", 1997) indicted quietism, and "Isn't it Strange?" sussed out her metaphysics. And of course, rushing the set to its conclusion in observance of a school curfew--probably one of the stranger injunctions she's had to observe lately--she offered her "Rock and Roll Nigger" ("Easter", 1978), one of the ultimate outsider anthems that sent the motley into the pit, not, this time, for moshing. But it could have happened. The moment had the requisite energy.

The most affecting moment came just prior, a reading of a poem, "Combe" ('a narrow valley or deep hollow,' thus, playing off the poem's central image): personal, riveting, balanced, and plaintive, for all the faint glimmer of Rimbaud-reminiscent heraldry skip-threaded through it. The poem concludes:

do you believe in god?
he is my trainer.
the shadow that boxed me.
the trainer that jesters me on.
we have entered a new period
of gain, a new state of time, we are here and
joyful to be so. here there is choice-a system
of action or action random and terrible.
to reinvolve ourselves we must face the past
with the existing spirit of the future, each
day I awake and a comb is lying on the pillow.
it is not mine, it belongs to my ancestor. it
belongs to
a time experienced by the old city.
the comb I press to my scalp. I feel it
relates to the skull of the soul but its
function is not coming in.
a coronet of stars
ornament of the tame
no one to bow to, to vow to,
to blame.
how did I die?
I tried to walk through light
with tangled hair
not yet prepared
for the valley of combat.


(Mark Nickels published his first full-length collection of poetry, Cicada, with Rattapallax Press last year. He lives in New York City.) [See review of Cicada in the February 2001 issue. Ed.]