By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST, June 2019
I am not a pushover for group poetry readings which I tend to find either smug or resonant with the intensity of a therapy session so I usually prefer the printed page. If I felt otherwise about the evening put together by Gabriel Don at the East Village venue, 5C, it was down to the mix of readers. These were David Lehman, who has edited The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2006), and The Best American Poetry; Puma Perl, who will not need to be introduced to anybody familiar with the LES; Uche Nduka, a Nigerian-American poet and dancer; Sharon Mesmer, a pivotal figure in Flarf, a movement that discards customary poetic usage with Dada abandon; Terese Svoboda, who is also a novelist, and wrote the libretto for an opera that had a run at the Disney Hall in California; Penny Arcade, a long-time pillar of the city’s performance circuitry; myself; and, of course, Gabriel Don herself, who was, okay, pushing her new book, Living Without Skin. Which is to say that the readers had been pulled in from distinctly different areas of the culturescape but they had melded as well as – venerable reference alert! – the flight deck team on Starship Enterprise.
The following notes are somewhat disjointed, the readers not necessarily in the right order, nor is each and every line necessarily attributed to the right human delivery vehicle. I could say that I have brazenly appropriated this work process from Flarf but it can more properly be attributed to the fact that this coverage was requested after the event, reconstructed from my written notes and that I use the word “written” rather loosely. The evening kicked off with Nduka, snapping out such crisp aphorisms as:
Being too comfortable causes depression.
You need a mountain for a waterfall
Right. Terese Svoboda got my attention - I watch the scar on my leg disappear and hope my heart heals too. I remind myself to listen to my insides – as did Puma Perl, who intoned I killed a large waterbug in my living room. A man from the 14th floor jumped from his terrace. She linked these two fatalities, adding No-one saves your life. You save your life. You are your life. Perl’s most recent poetry collection was unimprovably titled Knuckle Tattoos. As in, just where do you want those knuckles planted, squire?
“You write a poem a day,” noted David Lehman. “It improves your rate of productivity.” He tossed out a weaponized cream cake of a one-liner - Never rethink the frilly tutu - and studded his segment with references – Johnny Mercer, Eve Marie Saint, Malcolm X Boulevard – with hypnotic collagiste effect. All the readers were delivering pieces from Living Without Skin along with their own material. I live in Hitchcock’s America, he declaimed. What does that mean? A girl and her uncle can have the same name … You ask me to explain Janet Leigh’s character in The Manchurian Candidate. That got laughs too. At least I’m pretty sure that was Gabriel Don. God, my handwriting is horriblr. Fashion note: Both male poets wore hats and Lehman’s titfer, a trilby I believe, accentuated a sense that he was referencing the long-gone Land of Beat and the America of Death of a Salesman..
Penny Arcade was her magnificently strident self, especially when unleashing her countercultural call-to-arms, They Took It On Themselves. She hit the Go button with I was thirteen when I started, … I took it on myself … we took it on ourselves. Moving on: All the ones who made us safe, they’re all rotting in their graves … Jackie Curtis, Jack Smith … Candy Darling, Quentin Crisp. Another hypnotic human collage. Mona Lisa, I hate that bitch. I never had a father. I never learned to be that kind of whore.
So follow that, right? Well, Sharon Mesmer did. Lithe, in black, with pixillated blonde hair, somewhat a Godard movie look. Her earlier books of verse include one with the great title, Annoying Diabetic Bitch, and the most recent being Greetings From My Girlie Place. She kicked off by demanding What is this? the guy in the elevator said, smelling his finger and it kind of took off from there. As when she read:
My mother led me to
a tub full of water
as warm as toast
the water felt so good
you can cry mother said
the melancholy life of a woman
when she first learns
she is not a boy
And my own contribution? Well, my models are Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Lorenz Hart, Noel Coward and other such rhymers who are seldom to be found in poetry anthologies. TS Eliot observed that it was better to write good verse than bad poetry. So I try. Onwards to Gabriel Don, the winningly pregnant creature who stitched this event together. Well, I had picked two short pieces from Living Without Skin. Sometimes showing is better than telling. Here they are.
April 6th 2015
Counting blessings though under my skin it-ches. Hangovers are a nervous breakdown the day after needs a survival kit
last night I was acting like a drunk clown
I had a meeting for my first solo
art show. This daily mirror is a bitch.
but this flower shall continue to grow
this swell life shall go off without a hitch Today I pay for real estate license
meeting with a writer then an artist
put on some pants, a hat and let’s commence Yadda yadda ya—yeah you get the gist
The day after alcohol makes me ill
I try but I want to jump off my sill
April 28th 2015
This image is low res my sister and I
are up a tree we climbed in France near a river and my sister pushes me but I catch myself and don’t fall and break
but resist and she falls
my parents still talk about the time I pushed my sister out of a tree.
Good stuff, no? Anyway as of now I feel a whole lot more warmly about the group poetry thing. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest is an internationally known writer and artist.
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