Thursday’s reading at Portland State had a kind of tragic symmetry—four poets, four audience members (4.5 if you count the 3-year-old who came in near the end. But I think she was there strictly for the cookies). The upside was that I heard new work from three of my favorite Portlanders; with a little imagination, you could pretend it was an after-hours jam, when the jazzers used to play mostly for each other, except it was 4 PM instead of AM, and with cookies and cider.
Joel Bettridge started off with a few poems from Presocratic Blues, due out with Chax Press next spring. The pieces he read marry the terse cosmological speculations of the early Greek philosopher-poets to the sexy concerns of the blues. Some of the poems took the form of jokes (so Anacharsis says to a cocktail waitress …), others borrowed lyric motifs and patterns from popular song. Thinking it over later, I wondered about the connection between the multiple variations possible within simple forms like “walked into a bar” jokes or the blues and the Presocratic sense of existence as one substance distributed across shifting forms. What if Being was like sex, multiples made one, and Becoming the many come-on lines that precede it? And which one of the two is the poetry? Maybe that’s the appeal of Heraclitus and his band—you don’t have to split one into twos until Socrates. Are the blues in the title a lament for that loss of the whole?
Tom Fisher read from the “Songs” section of his manuscript in progress. Each poem in the series is named for a pop song, with titles that range from Phil Ochs’s “No More Songs” to Rush’s “Rivendell,” Foreigner’s “Jukebox Hero” to The Specials’s “Ghost Town.” The relationship between the title track and the poem that followed was loose and appealingly opaque; Fisher’s language was taut and philosophical in a way that focused attention on the experience of listening, with pop music used as a kind of sonar for making a self appear. In the course of his reading, he mentioned Ochs’s record 50 Phil Ochs Fans Can’t Be Wrong, and the abbreviation that title relies on to make its point was a key technique in Fisher’s poems too, where concision and white space worked to intensify the meanings of individual words (“Fantasy abides little/precisions”). He explained one poem as a kind of reenactment of the “doubling” you used to be able to do on old cassette players, where you could sing over the original tape while the song still played behind you (“the voice passes and doubles/in the analog technology/of small selves”). The poems seemed to explore the implications of that particular understanding of “voice,” and hold it up against sound’s necessary opposite, silence: “Sing goodbye to song in songs,” “encryptions of the withdrawn,” “No More Songs.” A few of these poems are up online at Cultural Society; I’d like to hear all of them soon.
I keep meaning to blog about Kaia Sand’s powerful Rembember to Wave: A Poetry Walk in North Portland back in September, and now I’m sorry I haven’t, because her performance Thursday was a deft adaptation of the walk to the textier confines of a poetry reading. Speaking against a recording of instructions for Japanese internment in Portland in the 1940s, Sand repeated key phrases in a way that set seemingly neutral bureaucratic language into new, more sinister contexts. The material she mined from corporate ads, disaster relief manuals, legal documents, and—as part of a separate project—language from “The NAFTA” turned the vocabulary of regulation and control into a type of dissenting social lyric. If poetry is a heightened awareness of language, Sand’s poems insisted on working with language we’re not supposed to be aware of—codicils, bans, exclusions, and obscure provisos whose power depends on their ability to slip under the public record. While she read, she passed around “texts” that wove maps, words sliced from treaties, drawings, and actual stitching into the space of the writing, symbol and enactment of the labor her poems engage. Her reading complemented the approach to poetry in Landscapes of Dissent: Guerrilla Poetry and Public Space, where poems become a form of intervention to help reclaim an increasingly restricted “public.”
I hope there’s more public to hear it next time.
19 hours ago