Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dine, Katz, Michener Reading, 10/13/07

The Dine reading in Portland on Saturday brought a shiver of art world titillation to the usually dowdier realm of small press poetry. I say Dine reading because my hunch is that the 70-80 plus audience, shoehorned into a space for 40, crowding doorways, listening through windows from the outside, sitting on the floor and squeezing legs out of the way of the passing wait staff, included a large mass of visual folks taking a walk on the wordy side. From what I overheard in my corner at the back, a lot of people were eager to just see Dine, the Wizard come out from behind his canvas to address the Emerald citizenry. The crowd was a pleasure and a prick, a reminder of the audience poets always ought to have.

Diana Michener opened with a generous swatch from DOGS, FIRES, ME, which recalls the warmth, violence, and vivid religiosity of a mid-century childhood in Ross, CA. The narrative involves the growing self-awareness of a young girl poised between the revivalist fears of the beloved cook who helped raise her, for whom every seismic tremor is stage one of the Apocalypse, and the complex social pressures of the adult world, as the protagonist begins to suffer the schoolyard consequences of her father’s big city reputation for philandering. The piece stood out for the fine-grained detail that brought this particular social milieu to life through a young girl's eyes, but also for the sense of presentness that Michener gave to her delivery, which felt less like a “reading” than a remembering aloud in public, like she could have reached into the book at any point and touched one of the figures she was writing about. She prefaced the reading by saying that the work came out of the same field as her images, and I had the sense while she read that we were being invited to peek under the usual surface of art, literary or visual, to consider something more personal and primordial.

Vincent Katz read a span of work stretching from several years to “just a couple of days ago.” He began with a succession of short poems, half-koan half-zinger, playfully deep and seriously witty. The standout of his reading for me was the sections he read from "Barge," a poem that takes on politics, identity, and the turmoil in the Holy Land in an artfully wry way that seemed to color outside the familiar lines. Writing this, I looked up "Barge" on Google to help supplement my memory, and came across this thrifty description by Katz himself. After locating the poem among Roman images of the afterlife (the barge in part is Charon’s), Katz writes:
“I had been looking over the Hudson River towards New Jersey in the area of Manhattan in the 20s and become enamored of the vision of nature that one can find there. There is so little nature in Manhattan, that the artist who wants to paint or write about nature must find it in narrow vistas or expanded glimpses. At the river, I could gaze for hours at untrammeled water; even the actions of boats and helicopters seemed to be part of a less structured urban life. In particular, I became obsessed with those heavy, flat vessels used to transport large containers and huge piles of grain. Their slow-moving choreography seemed at once ancient and modern; I fixed on the title, “Barge”.... It would allow for all kinds of unruliness, rudeness, and impromptu spasms of thought and vocalization.

The poem was written during a period of two and half years, ending in August of 2006, in a variety of locales on different continents. The first sections set the stage for spatial and verbal experimentation, and the later sections, although they arrive in different formats, are not quite formal. Form is an expediency, to arrive at a different mode of expression, rather than a goal."
Katz goes on to describe his poetry in terms of temporal “frames,” fixed boxes of time (an afternoon, late nights after an evening’s event) into which he pours thought until something “occurs” in the writing—or in the process of thinking induced by the “frame” provided for the writing—that “sets the tone for that segment of time.”

This reminded me very much of the effect of hearing Katz’s poems as a whole: an attentiveness to time as a corral for observations and the choreography of consciousness; the sense of the poem as a frame for things to happen in—a chamber of "tones" rather than a formal straitjacket or procedural machine; and a governing sense of poetry as a kind of “expediency,” a means for shaping, recording, and ultimately seeing thought, not so unlike the picture plane. Vanitas, which is a type of still life and also an orientation towards existence, moved off the edge of the bar like free peanuts; I doubt Katz had a single issue to haul back home.

Jim Dine read what he called “recent” poems, from 7 years ago to as recently as this summer. His work encompassed the color blue, alcohol, political invective, and, especially, elegy—several for Creeley, for his own lost 30s and 40s, for a loved dead friend. The pleasure for me in hearing Dine read was in watching the lines unflex without apparent regard for the usual moves on the chessboard. Often at readings, where poets tend to read for other poets, I have a sense of the invisible L-shape the knight’s described to land on its particular sentiment or idea. With Dine, it was all pawns moving as many squares forward as he wanted, the sentiments arrived at with an appealing directness and disregard for the usual po-biz syllabus. Dine said later that he writes many of his poems in charcoal on walls, both to photograph them and to get the look right, tighten up the spelling etc., writing being for him, like drawing, largely a matter of “correcting.” I don’t know many (any?) poets who approach their work this way, with the lines as visual objects to be corrected and redrawn, like a charcoal sketch. It might account for the different kind of weight his lines seemed to carry, a poetry deeply in touch with the creative, but not overly worried about poetics.

Dine, a strong performer who was clearly delighted to be reading, seemed happy for the chance to pull down the scrim of art world celebrity, and used his last poem to settle old scores against thickheaded critics in a way you'd think JIM DINE might be beyond, but I found it endearing and human that he wasn't. The reading ended with Dine singing a few verses of an old blues or folktune, Muddy Waters maybe, deep and received with huge applause.

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