This post originally appeared on the Bryant Park Blog.
On Tuesday, July 29th, 2014, the Bryant Park Reading Room welcomed a whopping seven poets in an extended showcase for Sibling Rivalry Press. Wendy Chin-Tanner, Saeed Jones, Rickey Laurentiis, Valerie Wetlaufer, Brock Guthrie, Darrel Alejandro Holnes, and Cheryl Boyce-Taylor all appeared to read from their new or forthcoming material. Sibling Rivalry specializes in work from across the LGBTQ spectrum, and this evening’s readers presented a smorgasbord of queer viewpoints- in every sense of the word.
Wendy Chin-Tanner began the reading with her newly releasedTurn, a “memoir in verse”. Skimming through the volume in a loosely chronological order, she shared pieces of her coming-of-age. Descriptions of vanishing horizons seemed to permeate these poems from the first word. From evocations of the shoreline to an accident in the kitchen while cutting persimmons, small pieces of her seemed to detach and fall away before our eyes.
Minor miracles accompanied these mishaps as she started “tumbling over myself like sea glass”, “my waters quickening, unplanned.” A woman’s inner water ran through these poems, carrying erotic charges and new births. Naturally enough, the visibly pregnant Chin-Tanner’s voice broke with emotion at these moments, punctuating her restrained reading with moments of emergent life-force and vulnerability
Saeed Jones followed, returning to Bryant Park after last month’s reading for the Poetry Man tribute. (cf: my post for 6/24/14.) This time, he dived more deeply into his repertoire, dredging up the silt from river bottoms both real and imagined. His first piece, “Anthracite”, was a cry against racism as much as coal extraction: in “strip-mined eyes”, “everything born black burns.” Then he took us on a light-hearted romp through drunken nights of “boot-scootin’ boogie” at a gay bar in Nashville, lifting the mood for a spell.
We fell back to Earth to eulogize a youth drowned in the Mississippi, “an animal caught in the sludge”. Then came “Thallium”- a piece named after a cheap cologne- which mixed lust with rage. “You can’t sleep here,” Jones says to a paramour. “You won’t wake up.” He closed with his darkest (and most moving) piece of all: an elegy for lynching victim James Byrd Jr, who in 1998 was dragged to death behind a pick-up truck in Texas. The poem moves from simple exposition to pure lyric: “death song”, “chain gang”, “work song”. The effect was electric.
Rickey Laurentiis was third. His was a softer, more dreamy take on some of the same themes (of queer identity and racial justice) with involutions modeled after Gothic decadence. It was hard to keep up with his deft turns of phrase and consciousness and I found myself straining to listen rather than taking notes. “Let the whole pageant end,” his first poem demanded, but he seemed to be calling for a transformation of spirit rather than referencing an object. Here was a narrator captive to his own ruthless ontological inquiry.
Nevertheless, Laurentiis’ poems stay grounded in specific bodies: exhumation of America’s murdered black spirits, a deconstruction of a kiss, a dream about a lynching in Africa. “I saw, I dreamt, two men”- “African, not American”- hung “spine to spine”, victims of an indigenous mob violence rather than imported racism. His poems move freely from past to present and across geopolitical boundaries but always return to pivot points close to home. A statue of a boy in the Met served as such an anchor for his last poem, leaving us with an airy sense of completion.
Valerie Wetlaufer followed with a suite of rapacious Sapphic poems celebrating “crumpled dresses” and “backroom love”. Her fragmentary style includes “bad wives”, wigs and tattoos, and the impact of gender violence. Her words are mixed with the words of others, which seems to be both an aesthetic choice and a battle with internalized abusers. “Tornado Alley”- the title of a poem- stood as a metaphor for the suicidal feelings that often confront queer youth; hers “would have been the 33rd gay suicide that year.”
For me, her most affecting poem was “The Pupil”, an account of her childhood rape at the hands of a teacher. After describing one of the rapes in detail, she remembers a heartbreaking conversation with the teacher years later: “No, I don’t remember anything.” Other kinds of exploitation seemed to flow forth from that, including the close presence of invasive male eyes. Wetlaufer concluded with a “Consolation”, or an ambivalent redemption: “You burned my maiden name.” Her bitterness, amazingly, is slowly turning into wisdom.
Our fifth reader, Brock Guthrie is, as his book title claims, a “Contemplative Man”. And the main subject of his contemplation- done by way of long, chatty prose poems- seems to be male bonding in its crass modern American forms. His first poem, “Animals”, was a litany of his distractions from writing that wound up coming close to real spiritual insight. “The longer you look at something,” his friend Ricky says in the poem, “the more it looks like you.”
His musings on the joys of extended adolescence had the audience giggling like a stand-up comic. His other poems continued along similar lines. Faith No More blaring from a car stereo was his Pegasus ascending. His last poem, “Once I Get Up This Hill”, was a lazy man’s Sisyphus, full of pratfalls and excuses. But Guthrie sees through his own act well enough to move on to bigger and better things. He may well be on his way to a kind of career in post-James Tate red-blooded prose poetry.
Darrel Alejandro Holnes, next up to the mic, shared poems bilingually in Spanish and English to honor his Panamanian origins. His pieces had a highly composed feel in spite of his conversational style. The effect was in large part because of the delivery: his articulation is clear and his voice booms. (I was not surprised to learn later in the evening that he is also a musician and producer.) He began with a campy and high-spirited poem about dressing in drag to impress a lover by appropriating the Prom Queen’s tiara.
He then told us the idiosyncratic story of the “Cristo Negro de Porto Velho,” a black Christ figure left by colonial-era Europeans. Christians from around the region undertake a pilgrimage to this Christ “in native disguise”, as his tongue-in-cheek poem puts it. Partially digested religious imagery seeped into a number of poems; “The Down Low Messiahs” lampooned “God’s vain process” as it found divinity in sex. His eulogy for Sergio Hernandez- a young Mexican recently killed by U.S. agents for throwing a stone- echoed Jericho. But even with these overtones, Holnes seems to embrace the “Millennial” mindset in which frivolity and significance become hard to distinguish.
After six poets, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to process much else. But Cheryl Boyce Taylor, our seventh poet, was easy on the ears. Her rich Trinidadian accent, vivacious stories, and a sensual cornucopia of tropical colors and textures lifted my spirits immediately. “Turkey Basting” was a poem about the time-honored lesbian solution to a “womb dry as whale bone”. Her “Poodles and Sour Cream” was an earthy introduction to class consciousness.
She followed these with reminiscences about her drunken father, striving towards “life after malt liquor” across surfaces of copper, cadmium, porcelain. Taylor’s late mother was also re-born right before our eyes as Taylor invoked her mother’s voice and Creole grammar. “She little trinket shop” bore a fruit of re-purposed pronouns in a running stream of consciousness. She closed with tender words about Tobago and a gloriously clear-eyed celebration of the “night bloom”.
The lyric play was intoxicating, and a number of assumptions about gender, race, and place had exploded by the end of this mini-marathon. It was an impressive showing by a groundbreaking new publisher. Thank you to the poets, the Sibling Rivalry staff, and everyone at the Bryant Park Reading Room.