Oct 12, 2010
That’s especially odd for Banjo-Brain because the conference moved this year from a pastoral tent setting in outstate New Jersey to downtown Newark. Some festival veterans (it was my first time) thought the new setting, plus the selection of poets, added a more urban, multicultural dimension. Whether or not that was new, it was present and it was good.
Fifty poets read and offered workshops over four days—last Thursday through Sunday. This included five former U.S. Poet Laureates—Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Sharon Olds, Kay Ryan, and Mark Strand.
On Friday the diverse population included hundreds of high school kids, who were remarkably well-behaved and seemed genuinely interested. I cannot imagine being 16, a New York-ish kid or an outstate rube (more like Banjo) and finding myself bused to some glitzy cultural center, then herded into a room of 500 people, and listening—really listening—to somebody named Kay Ryan, who had a lady “partner” –
(“Gus, does that mean what I think it does?” “Well, I ‘spect.”)—
and this athletic-looking old lady (as old as that Banjo guy, for godssakes), this Kay Ryan was a poet-Laawrrrl-something, as she talked about poetry, and how she became a poet, deciding during a bicycle ride across the country, on a Colorado mountain, and talking about what it meant to be a poet, how it was both an embarrassment and a calling.
(“Gus, you mean like a preacher?” “Well, I ‘spect.”)
All this at 16? Yet listen they did, at least most of them—and asked questions, none of them dumb. It was stirring.
It’s hard to know where to begin reporting on such an important experience, but one way is to mention some poets who were new to me and who sounded good. So today I offer Jericho Brown. He read “Track 4, Summertime,” attached here, and he explained that it’s a persona poem: he’s speaking as if he were Janis Joplin (of Port Arthur, Texas). Maybe these lines from Jericho Brown will tease you into reading the whole poem (it’s only a page):
The band plays. I just belt out, Please. This tune
Ain’t half the blues. I should be thankful.
I get high and moan like a lawn mower
So nobody notices I’m such an ugly girl.
I’m such an ugly girl. I try to sing like a man
Boys call, boy. I turn my face to God. I pray. I wish
I could pour oil on everything green in Port Arthur.
For the whole poem (plus two more), click here: Tracks
And if you'd like a reminder of the remarkable voice and style of Joplin, click here:
YouTube - janis joplin must see or die