Saturday, September 21, 2002

 

Philadelphia is just large enough as a literary scene to occasionally present the “problem” of two good readings on the same evening. Due to some fortuitous timing, I was able to scoot between venues and hear Dale Smith & Hoa Nguyen at Writers House on the Penn campus, followed by Joan Retallack & Matt Chambers at the Temple Gallery in Olde City. 

 

Smith & Nguyen are two San Francisco poets who relocated a couple of years back to Austin, Texas, where they publish a range of American poetry under the banner of Skanky Possum (http://www.skankypossum.com/). While there are many poets today who have become established as writers in relative isolation far from the major writing centers of New York & San Francisco (or even secondary ones such as Washington, Philadelphia, San Diego or Boston), it’s an exceptionally challenging task, especially for someone who is working within alternative or post-avant traditions. Poets such as Tom Beckett, Lorenzo Thomas, Charles Alexander and Sheila Murphy all have demonstrated that it is possible to craft a successful poetic career in such a context that is not local in its scope, but they all also can probably attest to just how difficult this can be. Or see Juliana Spahr’s comments on the blog for September 14 on the use of Chain as a mechanism for keeping her connected to the literary community “over there (continent).” Nguyen & Smith are like Thomas, in that they’ve used their pre-move literary connections wisely to keep them plugged in. And they have the advantage, historically, of the web’s erasure of physical distance – there is more connectivity, for example, between poets as distant as Ireland and New Zealand today than has ever been the case before in history. But it’s a challenge that I as a young poet would not have had the courage to tackle.

 

Smith & Nguyen have distinct voices and are given to working on different sorts of projects. Listening or reading to Smith, one hears the influence, say, of the late Ed Dorn, in Smith’s uses of scholarship, though not in the actual devices or strategies of the poem. That a poet under the age of 40 thinks to make use of the work of Haniel Long, for example, ought to be grounds for celebration for that fact alone. After reading from her chapbooks, Nguyen sampled fragments from a piece in progress, a narrative about the life of her mother*, that promises to turn into something fabulous.

 

But the problem with two readings in one night in Philadelphia is that the audience isn’t quite there to support both equally. The event at Writers House had no more than 20 people – no one at Penn is apparently teaching Nguyen & Smith’s work this term – while there were 100 crammed into the oxygen-deprived Temple Gallery** to hear Joan Retallack. Matt Chambers, a “second-year writer” at Temple (and formerly of SUNY Buffalo), opened with a piece filled with dense philosophic metalanguage, undercut by the presence of multiple tape players scattered throughout the audience that echoed elements of the reading.

 

Retallack has arrived at that wonderful moment in a poet’s life – she is at the top her game, completely confident in what she’s doing (& with good reason) while continuing to go new places with every project she takes on. The excitement is both palpable and contagious. Hearing her read was the perfect capstone to the evening – and made me realize that had the four readers shared a single stage, the order could not have been better.

 

 

*”I haven’t even gotten to the part where she runs away with the circus yet…”

 

**The Temple Gallery can be an especially difficult space to hear poetry and exacerbates this by being the only venue I’ve ever been to that lacks restrooms, drinking fountains and wheelchair accessibility all at once. This is not what Zukofsky meant by the “test of poetry.”





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