On Sunday, I attended an afternoon of the L.A. Times Festival of Books with my mother. We listened to two poets read their work on the Poetry Stage near the inverted fountain on UCLA‘s South Campus and then had a look around at the many booths.
The Poetry Stage was the smallest of the many reading stages at the Festival, but it was just as well because it made for a more intimate atmosphere. The stage itself was set up on the grass to one side of the walkway. It was simple enough: a podium and microphone. Behind the poet was a banner that read “POETRY STAGE”—as if we couldn’t figure that out for ourselves. The audience was seated in plastic folding chairs with a few umbrellas around to shade against the sun. Behind the audience was a small table with information about poetry, including free bookmarks and copies of Poetry Flash. (I picked up a copy on my way to visit other parts of the Festival after I’d heard two poets read.) Across the walkway was the Small World Books booth, which was selling the readers’ works, as well as other books like The History of White People and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
The first poet (that I heard) was Cathy Colman (click photo at right for larger). She read a total of eleven poems during her half hour time slot and briefly prefaced most of her poems with some background information about the poem’s subject or form. Her first piece was an acrostic poem called “Acrostic at Dinner”. It was helpful to me that she explained what acrostic meant (“a poem in which the first letter of each line in the text spells out a word or a message”) because I’d have been lost if she hadn’t. Her second piece was an instructional poem called “How To”, which I really liked, about how to write a poem. She said she wrote it for her students who seemed to be perpetually afraid of the blank page. Her seventh poem, titled “Night Swim, 1974”, was based on a party she went to as a young student. Also in attendance at the party were many famous poets, who she mentioned in the poem, though she didn’t name any names, and I’m not familiar enough with many poets to figure out who she was talking about. I wrote down this line: “…his throat pulsing like mud does during rain…” because it included some interesting imagery which I haven’t seen elsewhere. Another poem, “Duplicate Letter” had a preface (correct word?) from Rilke. Colman tended to use a lot of allusion and alliteration in her work, something I mentioned numerous times in my notes. My favorite poem of hers was “Jacobson’s Organ: A Memo”, which was written from the point of view of a snake. (In snakes, the Jacobson’s organ is an olfactory sense in their tongues which helps them smell despite not having noses.) Cathy Colman’s most recent collection is Beauty’s Tattoo, published in late 2009 by Tebot Bach Publications.
The second poet of the afternoon, Annie Finch, had actually missed her flight to Los Angeles and was unable to read. Instead, an actress named Margaret Emery read some of Annie Finch’s poems in her place from two of her books, Eve (forthcoming in June) and Calendars. It was unfortunate that Finch didn’t get to read her own work, but Emery did a decent job in her place (click photo for larger), especially since it seemed like she’d been called in on short notice. Emery read a total of sixteen poems of varying lengths during the allotted half hour. The first poem, “Running in Church” (dedicated “for Marie”), had a lot of internal and end rhyme. The fourth, “Walk With Me”, had a lot of repetition, which had a soothing quality. I was expecting the repetition to be irritating, but it actually helped me get into the flow of the poem better. Another poem, “Letter to Emily Dickinson”, was a good example of apostrophe and included a line which I wrote down: “I take from you as you take me apart”. Finch’s poems had beach or sea imagery (“The Woman on the Beach”) and images of motherhood/childhood (“Being a Constellation”)—and some had both (“The Last Mermother”). “Two Bodies” included the beautiful line: “…they reach through the ceilings of the night…”; the speaker in “Blue Willow” stated, “It’s morning; day rises above me…”
Overall, I would have liked to have the poems in front of me while they were being read aloud so that I could follow along and notice the line breaks and other notations that don’t translate well into speech. My mother, sitting next to me the entire time, would periodically lean over and say either “I got that one” or “I didn’t understand that; could you explain it?” I don’t have a good enough short-term memory to be able to reproduce and explain something so recently introduced (it’s why I write things down in the first place), so I’d have to say, “Maybe we should buy the book” instead of actually being helpful. I like listening to poets read their own work (they know the work best, after all), but it helps to have read the poems for myself ahead of time.
Thanks to my mother for the photos.