Thursday, January 31, 2008


Poems on a cold night

Last Friday I went to a good poetry reading by three poets: Lee Herrick, Sun Yung Shin, and Brian Thao Worra. The reading was at The Loft, a literary organization founded in 1975 in the upstairs space of a small bookstore; these days The Loft occupies a converted warehouse building on the edge of downtown Minneapolis.

It was a full room, maybe 100 people? (I'm not good at things like guessing crowd size.) Lots of warmth and enthusiam among the people who came. Movable chairs, bare wood floors, exposed brick wall, podium with microphone. Good acoustics in the room. The weather had slightly "moderated" after several nights below zero -- I'd guess maybe 20 degrees outside. Worra and Shin live in Minneapolis; Herrick flew in from Fresno, California.

Each of the poets read for about 15 or 20 minutes. Brian Thao Worra read first. Shortly after he started, he came forward from the podium to engage more directly with the audience. Clear and crisp and highly articulated. At times I almost had the sense of listening to an oracle. His style of reading seemed to me the most fully theatrical of the three poets.

Here are a few lines from Worra's poem "An Archaeology of Snow Forts" from his book On the Other Side of the Eye (Sam's Dot Publishing, 2007; scroll down in the page till you come to the book):
History is composed of broken walls and bad neighbors:
Just ask these chips from Berlin, the Parthenon and Cathay
Or these cool magma hands of Pompeii, dark and grey.

If you listen carefully in the right place
On University Avenue, you will learn
There is a minor wall near the Yalu River
Dancing on the hills of Qin for the moon,

Who knows exactly what I mean
In every tongue worth mention.

She's moonlighting as a curved garden serpent
Coiling around old Laocoon,
The Suspicious One with his astute eye,
Crooning with a sly wink,

"Come, touch true history."
Sun Yung Shin read second. She was more conversational, commenting briefly about most of her poems before she read them. Her poems seem to me collage-like, pieced together with fragments that initially seem disconnected, even at times incoherent. Shin's is a type of poetry I often have difficulty reading. I found that hearing her read her poems helped me find a way into them. I liked her poems enough, hearing her read them, that I bought a copy of her book Skirt Full of Black (Coffee House Press, 2006) after the reading.

This from Shin's poem "Immigrant Song" in her book:
Take us under, take us downhill
Paint pangenesis all over your dancing body
The new party god
Keep the beat going,
don't stop, you can't stop

Crick & Watson
This is your mother's local phenomenon

If this is racial hygiene
Why do I feel so dirty?

Microcosmic soul
It's an involutionary wonderland
This living matter
A modern synthesis
4.6 billion years of biology
Can't stop the ideology
Graduate from meet/mate
To fitness landscape of sexual selection

From land over sea
It's a hard lyric
The impression of a key
in a bar of soap

A transitional fossil

Keep coming
Plant the flag
Bury the burial mound
Put the pop in popular
And the sigh in science
Lee Herrick seemed to me the most subdued when he read, his poems the quietest, almost shy at times. His poems tell stories with a careful delicate touch, reminding me sometimes of the brushstrokes of calligraphy. Often the power of his poems seems to me to lie in what they have left unsaid, or not said explicitly. The silence around the poem speaking as clearly as the words.

From Herrick's poem "Gravity" in his book This Many Miles from Desire (WordTech Editions, 2007):
Gravity means someone will receive the love.
It's not all that much work to love,

his mother says. Listen for the opportunity
and run alongside it, let your hair blaze

through the wind. Let everything go
if the wind decides to take control.

The angels orchestrate it all, anyway.
They have landed on a cloud and tested

all the theories--relativity, evolution, keeping
all the answers to themselves. In a moment

of levity the boy begins to love his mother
because she can hold a handful of balloons

and let them all go free, let them all slither
up into the sky like little air-packed circles

of guilt. He imagines her smiling
at the mirror for the first time in years,

like she used to do before
the father floated away.
I'd previously met Brian Thao Worra, briefly this past fall at the Rain Taxi book festival here. I hadn't previously read or heard Sun Yung Shin. Lee Herrick and I have talked a little in our blogs; it was a pleasure to meet face to face, and to have a chance to chat for a few minutes before the reading.

The poems of the three poets made a good fire to sit by for a while on a cold night.

Lee Herrick's blog is You Are Here; at the top of his Links column is a link to his personal website. Sun Yung Shin's blog is named Sun Yung Shin. Brian Thao Worra's website is here. Go visit.

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