Sunday, March 23, 2008

An exhausting weekend, and very un-Easter-like. I was quite surprised by how little Easter I saw around me—in Australia there’s chocolate everywhere for months in advance. In Cambridge a few years ago, Good Friday was quiet as quiet can be, and the colleges were holding services all around the place. Then catching a ferry from Livorno to Corsica on Easter Sunday, I arrived in a shut-down Bastia. (Where I had a very strange adventure—that could have turned dangerous, but didn’t—which is a story for another time.) And here—everything is open. I saw one shop shut today for Easter Sunday, though it was open for Good Friday. I’m used to Good Friday being the much more solemn day. I was getting something to eat, and was surprised when my waitress asked if I would like to add beef to my order. For me it’s only a cultural idea, but I’m so used to eating only fish on Good Friday. After midnight last night I celebrated with a few bites of dark chocolate… but my Easter has not been Easterly. And it will be over far too soon—still so many things I’d like to read, not to mention things to do. Time flies…

Split this Rock is over now—though there’s lots of a talk about how the movement can continue. Yesterday I managed to get myself to a few events, and then I attended a reading this morning.

In the afternoon I attended a talk about archives and vaults, with three people involved in radio and digital archives discussing their work, and things that have been sitting on tape for decades that are now being digitised. While I’m increasingly interested in listening to things, I have to admit my greatest interest is still the written word: interviews, notebooks, correspondence, ephemera... and these are works that I find more interesting in getting to know a little about the author than being especially illuminating. Perhaps I’m just a flibbertigibbet. I’ll listen, and then my attention drifts—even with my newfound nightly podcast lineup that puts me to sleep—mostly radio national, sprinkled with New Yorker programs. Nonetheless, I’m fascinated by what sounds like a huge number of programs that will be available early next week through the Pacifica Program Archives—they’re making available programs from 1968, which will cover a fascinating historical moment. I’ll need to find even more listening time in the day.

As well as this panel, the last twenty-four hours have seen me at 3 different poetry readings.

First up was the 5pm reading with Coleman Barks, Pamela Uschuk and Belle Waring. Lucille Clifton had been scheduled to read as well, but due to illness was unable to make it—each of the poets read a poem of hers, so in a way she was still present.

I wasn’t entirely taken with this reading. Coleman Barks is largely known for his translations of Rumi—which are wonderful. But he was reading his own work, which didn’t really stack up to his translation work, to my mind. In fact, the most charming moment in his reading came when he read a poem written by his (quite young) grandson. In a way, I would have liked to hear more of his grandson’s work, or more Rumi. Still, it must be tough to be a well-known translator who is also a poet (rather than the other way)—you’re best known for someone else’s voice.

Pamela Uschuk’s reading didn’t really penetrate the surface for me—this is at least partly because I find it very difficult to listen to what seems to be a prevalent style of reading poetry aloud, especially by female poets, that is really quite mannered. I can’t at this stage comment on what her work is like on the page, because universally well-read as I’d like to be, I’m still just a grad student, and I have Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley to finish, as well as more highlighting of Paradise Lost left to do in the next few days…

Belle Waring, though, was wonderful: Waring has worked as a nurse, and this experience is apparent both in her knowledge and presentations of the body in her work, and also the steady gaze she brings to her subjects. She read the poems simply, and came across as very modest—but the work spoke for itself. I want to read more. (Time, as ever, the key factor here…)

This was followed by an all-star lineup last night (well, all-star to me) of Kenneth Carroll, Alicia Ostriker, Mark Doty, Dennis Brutus and Carolyn Forché. It was, I guess, really the last three that I came to hear—and I wasn’t disappointed. Kenneth Caroll’s work was by turns fun and serious (and often both at once). A piece in rhyming couplets about “Schnooky” and his relationship to the army and the war in Iraq was a real crowd-pleaser. Alicia Ostriker, unfortunately, didn’t penetrate—again, this could be her presentation as a reader of her work. Because I was really experiencing her work cold, it relied on her, and—well—it didn’t “do it” for me.

Mark Doty—what is there to say? The man is beautiful, the poetry is beautiful, and, apparently, his taste in art is beautiful too, because he read a poem about my favourite painter Joan Mitchell. In opening his reading he quoted from Taha Muhammed Ali:

And so
it has taken me
all of sixty years
to understand
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people's hearts.

The measure of splendour is front and centre in his poetry. I am enamored. He reads beautifully too—his poem on Joan Mitchell, though new to me, was drinkable. I drank.

Dennis Brutus didn’t really read—well, there was a short poem at the end of his time on stage. Instead, he stood and talked for about half an hour. Reflecting on the festival title, he recalled his time in prison on Robbin Island (the same prison in which Nelson Mandela was held) when he was kept in the maximum security area of the maximum security prison. He was give stones and a hammer, and each day he had to split these rocks—at the end of this effort to reduce them to gravel each day, they were scattered around the cell: illustrating the futility of the hard work he had to do. Nonetheless, this wasn’t the hardest job. Because he had once been shot in the back (a through-wound, the bullet came out his chest) he was spared the harder job that Mandela moved on to: splitting not just regular stone, but limestone. Just hearing him talk (and, really, after his life he is entitled to speak in absolutes) was a privilege.

And—Carolyn Forché. I’m under her spell. It looks like I’ll get to spend a lot more time talking to her soon. She read what is probably my favourite poem of hers—“Prayer,” which I read in New York in 2003, sitting in a Barnes and Noble (I couldn’t afford to buy the book, so I copied the poem into the notebook I was carrying with me). She also read a beautiful list poem, “The Museum of Stones”—I should tell her that I too have a miniature stone museum: a small black stone from the first time I swam in the Mediterranean, a pair of stones from Skågan in Denmark, from the day I walked off the northern end of Jutland, another pair my parents brought back from Gallipoli for me, a stone from the ground at Hanging Rock to hold in my palm when I need to feel Australia.

Then today Naomi Ayala and Galway Kinnell. A wonderful reading. This was being followed by a silent march to the White House—but for some reason I didn’t feel like joining the march. Perhaps it was the cento poem they were creating, with everyone contributing a line of no more than 12 words. I’m already exhausted from listening to all these voices—I don’t think I could take the buzz of many, many more today. After so many words, I need silence too.