“The night’s young, you’re not”: New Orleans Poetry Festival Day 2

-Reviewed by Claire Trévien– 

Today’s summary is going to be a little more perfunctory than yesterday’s, as I spent more energy sourcing and reading books from the book fair, and organizing interviews with some of the publishers. I hope to share the results of those activities on here soon. In the meantime, I have focused on recapping two elements in particular: one panel, and one showcase, with, once again, some stray observations.

Standout panel: Your Day Job

This was an interesting debate where the four poets showed the different ways in which they have managed to make poetry their day job. Dan Bellem argued against the assumption that poets must inevitably become teachers in MFA programs. It’s fine if you do, of course (he is one himself), but it’s not the only way.

“What does being a poet mean for the rest of your life” Mark Statman asks his students, “It means you are a creative person, it means you have a sense of language, a sense of communicating, a sense of space, these are all things of value. Microsoft would rather hire people who can do that, than people who can write programs. I’m not saying don’t go into academia, but at the same time, there are so many ways to be a poet in the world. It’s not the only option.”

L-R: Dan Bellem, Jeffrey Cyphers Wright, Jesse Lee Kercheval, Mark Statman

Jesse Lee Kercheval said “Getting paid is the tough part. One of the bubbling places is the libraries. They are now all running incubator spaces, everything is happening in the library. I’ve had 3 people recently get their library science degrees and have amazing jobs – there are readings and hackerthons going on there.” The panel also pointed to greater collaboration with STEM subjects as being the way forward.

I particularly enjoyed Bellem’s take on the idea that poets need more time to write. He said “The job has almost never got in the way of my writing. My most productive times have been when I’ve been way too busy to do writing, and it happened anyway. Also my husband got a three month sabbatical once – and I kept nothing from it. It was a torturous summer: I had nothing but time and the writing didn’t happen. So screw that correlation.”

Jeffrey Cyphers Wright talked about all of his different endeavours from publications to events, with a nice emphasis on reviews as not just a good deal (free books!) but also as a great way to get under the skin of the work. Statman talked about how he only reviews works he likes, seeing it as a way of championing people, rather than contributing to poetry wars. They all spoke about the importance of building a community, as “we have enough enemies. We can disagree passionately, but we are in the same boat”.

Standout reading: Coven Press

“There might be language”, announced Michelle Detorit before her reading, spotting the two tweens on the second row. After reassurance, she then added “And, there might be language” to great laughs. There was something charming about the showcase of Coven Press authors – helped in no small part by Jesssica Smith’s compering. She introduced each act with a story of how she first met them which, for my bucks, works better than a long list of accolades when it comes to contextualizing an author. It was particularly nice to hear that Jessica’s students took to Ginger Ko’s poetry so much that one of her poems has become a meme in the classroom.

Out of the half-dozen or so poets that I caught, a few stood out: the aforementioned Michelle Detorit’s zinger lines (“Birds flap around like broken hearts. They’re so trashy”); Maureen Thorson’s despair poems, delivered in wonderful deadpan; Ginger Ko’s Mother Lover poems were sharp and hilarious; Vanesa Cristina Pacheco’s bilingual surreal readings, and more. I captured three of the poems on camera so you can get a feel for them in this video:

Stray observations

  • In the lunchtime readings, I enjoyed Festival co-organizer Bill Lavender’s French Quarter Haikus, from which the title of this report comes from.
  • A great thread throughout this festival is that of translation. Almost everyone on the Day Job panel was a translator, several poets have used translation actively as part of their readings. In the lunch time reading slot, Luis Bravo performed with Jesse Lee Kercheval translating besides him (see video above for a very quick extract).
  • Participated in a cheerful broadsheet/pamphlet making workshop in the morning – which was a welcome change from panels and makes me wish I’d taken up one of the other ones running previously at the Festival. Led by Christopher Carmona and Isaac Chevarria, it was not very well attended – perhaps other participants assumed it would have been sold out? In any case, I found the history of broadsheets as related by Carmona interesting (my background being in French Revolutionary ephemera). I have noticed that broadsheets are a big contemporary trend in the USA for some time – I wonder if that will ever catch on properly in the UK. Chevarria’s piratical take on publishing was great – he steals templates and invites to be stolen from in turn by putting his work on Pirate Bay. The practical elements of the workshop were perhaps a little bit basic for me, but they evidently had an impact on the other participants plus I got a nifty broadsheet out of the deal, so I can’t complain!
Nifty Broadsheet
  • The open mic stage definitely got some action today but I was still a bit too distracted to properly listen. Tomorrow’s grand finale revolves around open mic however so I’ll get my fix then of the highs and lows that come with that territory. I can’t promise I’ll be sober enough to review it though.
  • I fought off tiredness long enough to see all the featured acts at the evening event – and I’m particularly pleased to have done so. Kelly Harris was a spitfire, and her poem ‘Mrs Potatohead’ – on Rachel Dolezal’s appropriation of black culture – was a technically taut wire act. Lee Herrick has one of the most beautiful deliveries I’ve heard – give this man a cereal packet to read out and I’d listen. Plenty of gorgeous material there – was most taken with his crossword poem ‘Flight‘ at the close. Tyrone Williams was in comparison a gentler poet whose love of the details of linguistics shone through, I would love to re-hear or read his circumflex accent poem. Rodrigo Toscano’s plosive poetry was too dense for me to digest at that point – I will need to re-visit his poetry another time.
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