Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Erica Hunt


Erica Hunt & Christian Bök gave a great reading last Thursday. It wasn’t, however, the same reading – Hunt was at Kelly Writers House, headlining a celebration of Carolina Wren Press authors, Bök was at Temple University’s reading series. The two events were, however, timed so that the ambitious among us could hear both. And their co-readers, for the most part, were excellent as well. Betwixt the two, it was three hours of great listening. And it reminded me that three hours of top-notch poetry beats a three-hour movie any day.

Hunt read with Evie Shockley & Andrea Selch, two poets whom I had never heard of nor read before I arrived at Writers House. Shockley has an interesting history – she started out as a lawyer before making the very uneconomic decision to move to poetry instead. Yet her work, at least as evidenced by her reading & the poems in The Gorgon Goddess felt tentative to me. She has something of a tin ear – an unusual problem for a poet – and seems much more interested in the stories she’s telling, especially in the characters being portrayed, than in how this is being conveyed. Yet a number of her poems were about people whom she knew only through the media: Michael Jackson, Anita Hill. That’s a writing strategy that always feels like a trap to me: using what the audience already knows about a character to develop interest, rather than in the details themselves. The result was that the poems themselves felt timid & bland. Not once in her reading did she use a line break for an enjambment, or for any effect at all, even in the works employing rhyme. Listening to her, I had the sensation that I was hearing somebody who was not yet a novelist, but who was heading there, toward a genre more suited to her interests & skills. But she’ll have to start writing about things & people she knows first.

Like Shockley, Andrea Selch is a poet whose orientation one might align with the School of Quietude. But there is nothing very quiet about Andrea Selch. Her poems, even the most conventional ones, show a wonderfully rich vocabulary & a real sense of how tease out the tension between syntax and the line. The first stanza of her Carolina Wren Press volume, Succory, shows her ability to generate & control complex effects:

Slow, the green came, weaning
the white bud from its tight swaddle of leaves.
Below, the slim stalk hardened;
each evening, stark against the muggy pane,
its veins drew closer in and spined like bark,
and you moved about the room, oblivious.

I hear this stanza as an extended strategy, deploying vowels to invoke responses not otherwise articulatable in words. The lo combination of the first word sets it up: we’ll find it again in both Below and closer, their combined reiterations preparing us for the o-rich final line, and especially that key sonic reversal of the phonemes that shows up in oblivious. To ensure the effect, she uses long e and a sounds in the earlier lines, plus those two bright long i sounds: tight & spined. As the stanza develops, the dominance of the vowels in the first lines opens up to enable the sharp contrast of the k in stalk, stark and most importantly bark (whose end-of-line power is accented by the foreshadowing in that same line at the beginning of closer). Thus to be presented at last with a line entirely governed by different uses of o has an impact as powerful as being thrown into a swimming pool. You feel immersed in this very different kinesthetic environment.

Selch’s chapbook from Carolina Wren was published five years ago, and maybe half of it finds its way again into her more recent Startling from Turning Point. There, they’re accompanied by a wide range of new poems, including one group of acrostic poems about sexually transmitted diseases, e.g.,

Cautious in all things she always has been;
Hardly aware of how it makes her seem that she
Lists among her daily errands even
”An unexpected kiss” as if exact apportionment of love
Might afford this graying marriage a youthful glow.
Yet no prophylaxis – emotional or otherwise – can
Delay the onset of midlife dalliance:
In theory, infidelity is instinctive.
And now, catcher herself about to scratch, she knows it.

If you’ve read the leftmost letters of each line vertically, you’ll know this poem is entitled “Chlamydia.” An even more complex group of poems, “Euphonics,” though not always as successful as the works I’ve quoted here, deploy individual letters across their texts in ways that recall the strategies of Oulipo.

Of the original contributors to In the American Tree, a few have proven quite circumspect about the amount of writing they’ve gone on to publish. Hardly any has written as well over the past thirty years as has Erica Hunt, with only a few too-slim volumes to her résumé. Part of this no doubt has to do with Hunt’s extraordinarily active professional life. She is the President of The Twenty-First Century Foundation, one of the few endowed, black governed foundations in the U.S; the Vice Chair of the Board of NYRAG, the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers; the Secretary of the Board of the National Center for Black Philanthropy; and a member of the program advisory committee of Changemakers, an organization that supports community-based philanthropy. She is also a parent, a spouse & one hell of a poet.

Hunt uses discourse, rhetorics, social tones in her work the way Selch uses vowels & consonants. Hunt’s poems – the majority of which are in prose – are complex weavings of carefully heard tones, a highly cognitive & even political music. Hunt read from Piece Logic, including the riveting “House of Broken Things,” as well as from a new work, The Mood Librarian, a series of aphorisms or aphoristic-like texts. It will be interesting to see these on the page. A marked affect of the best poetry is that you can’t take it all in aurally – you’re trying to think about this line & that image as the next three are already going by. If you can get it, you find your ability to hear/think/feel expand in the process. This is a characteristic feature of any Shakespeare play & it’s one you’ll find in Erica Hunt’s work as well. The self-containment strategies of Librarian (what an Olsonian word that’s become!) at least present the possibility of getting “all of it” in way that is hard to accomplish with her more layered texts. Writers House recorded the readings &, I’m told, PENNsound will eventually post them to the web. When they do, Hunt’s reading falls into those must-listen-to categories. The richness of the work is sometimes belied by the ease with which she reads, the confidence I think that comes from knowing that she’s at the top of her game.

The reading at Writers House had an audience of maybe 20 people, giving it the feel of an intimate jewel – our collective secret. Afterwards, several of us (including Selch, Hunt & Carolina Press poetry chapbook editor David Kellogg) made our way two miles north to Temple University’s City Center site (locally known as TUCC), to the fluorescent glare of a large classroom in which Brennen Lucas & Christian Bök were to read. The room was packed, with about 120 people in attendance, an index of the rock star-like effect Bök brings out in readers.

Lucas read first & in the Temple tradition of always pairing up a “student poet” with the featured reader, went quickly, reading the final passages of a booklength manuscript, entitled Guide to Poetry. This text, or at least the portion of it I heard at TUCC, is almost apocalyptic rant constructed out of an exceptional flow of parallel constructions (interwoven with sonic undertones a la Selch & more than a few puns). My instant reaction was that this might have been like the experience one would have had to go hear William Blake give a reading. Indeed, it would have blown many another “featured reader” (including yours truly) off the stage – everyone would have gone home talking only of Lucas.

Bök, however, is not just any other featured reader – he may be the best living oral presenter of poetry we have, which is not an accident since he is the man who has demonstrated, along with his Canadian colleagues The Four Horsemen & Penn Kemp, that sound poetry is not nostalgia for Zurich in the 1920s, but continues to evolve & can be a genre in which great work is produced. Whoever paired Lucas with Bök – Jena Osman, I believe – had the genius of putting Lucas alongside one of the relatively few performers whose reading wouldn’t seem a faint after-effect in contrast.

There must be a rule in the sound poet’s union that one is forced to perform some Kurt Schwitters & Hugo Ball at any given presentation & Bök is a member in good standing, in fact a brilliant re-enacter, but it’s really in his own works where the event takes off. Indeed Ball & Schwitters serve almost as aural palette cleansers between courses of Bök’s own texts. Inevitably, Bök read a substantial portion of Eunoia, the best-selling book of poetry in Canadian history, a notable feat in land of Leonard Cohen. As its title suggests, the poem is indeed filled with beautiful thinking. Bök’s style is to read rapidly, yet emphasizing every word. It sort of sounds like this:


Listening is, at once, exhilarating & draining. It is also, for anyone who has ever given a reading or even an oral presentation in front of live human beings, completely awe inspiring. One text, which Bök characterized as “a rondeaux inspired by drum machines” and which includes only sounds made by the tongue and lips – like a jug band soloist – leaves one quite aware that this is something one should never try without an enormous amount of practice – and a lot of confidence. It’s sort of the X-game version of a poetry reading.

The two readings together could not have been more different: one intimate, the other bordering on a circus, with four of the five readers offering radically dissimilar and complete visions of what a rich & complex poetics might look & sound like. As I made my way toward my car down 15th Street, I felt as if I’d just seen all three Godfather movies back to back. As a scene, I thought, Philly is doing alright.