Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Launch of Tribes 13

Read at Poets House for the launch of Tribes 13 yesterday. It was a day of record heat, but cool in the Battery Park home for poetry. The circular exhibition room showed some interesting first editions and letters, by Robert Duncan, Pound, Ginsberg, H.D., among others. No Asian American poets there. No Asian American poets too up on the wall in the quiet reading room. The narrative of American poetry, even in a liberal and progressive space, does not include them. For the first time I felt the enormity of the challenge of becoming a part of American poetry.

Okka said hi in the exhibition room. She had heard of me from a Singaporean poet friend, and was visiting Poets House when she read my name on a flyer advertising the Tribes reading. An Indonesian, she has been writing since young, and will be taking up a writing residency at the Vermont Art Studio next month. We sat together for the reading. The turnout was very good. There must have been close to 100 people there. I read "The square root of minus money is a movie" from the magazine, and then three Studies from SSSP. I was nervous before I read, but the feeling dropped away when I took the mic. The audience was very hospitable to poetry.

The magazine is impressive. Kat Georges' design is clean and modern. Artwork is paired in thoughtful ways with the poems and fiction. The art images are consistently interesting. Outstanding are David Haines's watercolor Untitled (Man Eating Dirt); Paolo Pelosini's collage Via Reggio; John Outterbridge's mix media sculpture Ritual Consoled; and David Hammons' witty take on the American flag, African American flag, with red and black stripes, and what looks like black stars on a green background. There are well-known names among the contributors but I did not enjoy their poems very much. More original is Ron Kolm's "The Summer They Killed The Spanish Poet," beautifully paired with Lina Puerta's miniature home-made tree in a glass dome, Cellvatico. "Pleading Before History," by Najwan Darwish, translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, is wonderful. It is a great example of how political poems should be written. Notwithstanding a few fine poems, I must say that the art in the magazine is much stronger than the poetry.

The interview with Matthew Shipp, a leading figure of the New York downtown improvisational music scene, strikes a chord with me. He sounds out many of the themes I work with too. To the question of how much of his performances are thought out beforehand, Shipp said,

Well, I practice a lot. I practice my language a lot. When I sit down I try to clear my mind and I try to start from scratch and generate a new cosmos every time, but there are certain underlying premises that  I work on all the time. And I work on ways of trying to expand my language. And I work on ways of trying to open my imagination that have nothing to do with what I'm playing. If I have a few hours, I'll sit down and play Bach's Fugues, which have nothing to do with what I do, but it gets my musical imagination going, and it gives me material in a certain way in my subconscious. I mean, I have millions of things that I do. So, if I sit down and I play something that's completely spontaneous, there's hours of preparation in order to be able to do something intelligent in real time.

I love the way he kept repeating the word "trying." The language in the passage is improvisatory too. When he talked about the influence of Taoism on his music, he shows an intuitive grasp of it when he said, "Its essence is to feel it or just be there. There is no explanation." Of Genet's novel Our Lady of the Flowers, he recalled, "it took me so deep into myself that I had stuff happen in my head that transcends any language. I had things going on in my head that I don't know where the fuck they came from. But there's a constant alchemy that goes on. I consider myself an alchemist of sorts." And how could I not warm to someone who describes "The Four Quartets" as a sacred text.

For Shipp, jazz was still an "underground language," though elements of it have been incorporated into the mainstream. Shipp was frank in saying that he does not understand why people, even blacks, don't want to hear jazz. He guessed that it may be because it takes too much effort. He does not want to think too much about it, he said, "I just want to push the notes down when I play."

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