Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Rogue Scholars and Active Ingredients Readings

Just did two readings this last week. The first, on June 26, at Cornelia Street Cafe, was hosted by Miriam Stanley who edits the Rogue Scholars. I read the new stuff written in response to Eavan Boland. Quite raw, but I wanted to give them an airing so as to get ideas for revision.

Jean Lehrman read, accompanied by Dan the bartender/musician on vibraphone. I liked a prose piece she read, about a relationship that developed between a case worker and a client. It has something of sweet despair in it, with no cloying sentimentality. I've heard James Maynard read a couple of times at the Pink Pony open-mic, and always enjoyed his poems. His pastoral and love poems are dreamy as waters, with a strong current of feeling. His poem on leaving White Cap Creek, a river in Colorado where he helped build a bridge, is the best kind of nature poem: passionate affiliation.

Last night, at The Stone, Nemo's Active Ingredients hosted We Sing the Body Electric: Whitman and His Children. Thomas Fucaloro, Jane Ormerod, John Marcus Powell, and Iris N. Schwartz took turns to read "I Sing the Body Electric," before I read excerpts from my sequence "The Book of the Body." The four readers also read their favorite Whitman as well their own poems inspired by him. The Whitman selections were off the beaten path: "Song of the Broad-Axe," "Earth, My Likeness," "O You Whom I Often and Silently Come," "That Shadow My Likeness," "We Two--How Long We Were Fool'd," and "When I Heard at the Close of the Day."

The original poetry was varied and interesting. Jane's "Preparation for the Body (Exhumed)" was an imagistic collage about a dead mother. Thomas read short, often ironic pieces, that qualify or contradict Whitman ("I am the body neglected"). Iris read sexy lyrics. John Marcus, in his deeply authoritative voice, read a long narrative poem about voyuerism called "Parallels."

Thanks, everyone who attended the readings. Also, the guy who bought a copy of Payday Loans. Rick Mullin reviews the evening (scroll down). Here's the note I wrote for the program:


I Sing the Body Electric: Whitman and his children

Walt Whitman (1818 – 1892) is usually read as an American, or gay, or shamanic poet. He is all that, and more. Not only did he write “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the Calamus poems, and “Song of Myself,” he also wrote the Children of Adam poems, of which “I Sing the Body Electric” is the longest part, and so, the key.

Singing the Body electric, Whitman touches what is common to us all, gay or straight, male or female, American or otherwise. “This is the female form,” he declares, and “the male is not less the soul,” nicely destroying the polarity of male-soul and female-body. He was concerned with the social injustice of his time—for the man’s body at auction, and the woman’s body at auction. He was also concerned with our existential lot, asserting that “each has his or her place in the procession” of the universe.

His animal spirits, his ethical idealism, and his metaphysical daring inspired me to write my sequence of poems “The Book of the Body.” I wanted to test that fighting optimism against our present conditions that seem so adverse to it. Plagued by religious hatred, historical divisions, and economic rivalry, how can one sing of, as Whitman has it, “the exquisite realization of health”? Still, as an act of faith, I am using as an epigraph Whitman’s statement of faith: “O my Body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you.”

In the spirit of this Adamic poet, the reading tonight gathers together readers of different nationalities, ethnicities, and sexualities, though not in any comprehensive way (impossible anyway since “the body balks account,” as Whitman reminds us). “I Sing the Body Electric” enlarges our conception of Whitman as poet. Perhaps the reading will enlarge his circle of children.

Jee Leong Koh
June 22, 2008

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