Walking into Chop Suey and asking about the reading, bookseller Andrew says, "It's right up your alley - a reading and a performance!"
Going to poetry readings two days in a row can mean only one thing: it must be National Poetry Month. And today's offering, while very different in tone, was every bit as impressive as yesterday's. And there was music.
Keith Flynn led off by proposing to read a poem of William Matthews' called "Mingus in Diaspora" as a prelude to his own poems. "We'll consider this an unofficial bit of foreplay," he said. Favorite line: 'And the work of the body becomes the body of work."
Before reading his own "The Puritans' Dilemma," he announced, "I'll sing a little something to get us in the mood, if that's alright." Understand that for several years he was the lead singer of The Crystal Zoo, a hard rock band with a poet for a lyricist, so this was not your average poet deciding to sing a little. Favorite line: "What is history but a fable agreed upon?"
In "Forty," about some of the most tragic events that have occurred, he wrote, "What you do in the karma kitchen is your business." I know how I try to keep my karma kitchen a sunny place.
Flynn had a rhythmic reading voice, nuanced in its pauses and appropriately emphatic when it needed to be. Somehow, I think he could have read bad poetry and made it sound good. Instead, coupled with the beauty of his words, he was a masterful reader. And, let's face it, I go to readings to be well read to; otherwise I could read to myself to experience the poetry.
Introducing his poem "Lincoln's Life Mask," he talked about having seen one in Indiana, taken after Lincoln was shot. He went on to mention a wholly different kind of body part mold, but looking around, guessed that it was before the audience's time. Not so, I indicated; I remembered reading about the famous castings to which he was referring. And then it was back to Lincoln.
After singing a bit of Howlin' Wolf, he read a poem about an imagined time when the Wolf and Louis Armstrong ("Louie so clearly in the furrows of the groove"), his two favorite singers, took the stage together. As he explained, "I get to do what all poets get to do," holding up his poem to indicate the obvious. He gets to make stuff up.
As a transition from Flynn to poet Greg Donovan, the two played a couple of songs together, including the classic, "I'm Sitting on Top of the World." Their guitar/vocal duo was superb and an unexpected treat at a reading. Andrew had been right about how up my alley it was.
Donovan, who teaches at VCU, began with a piece he said he was still working on, called "The Visit" and referred to it as a point-of-view poem ("The couple we may have been but could not keep alive..."). When he finished, he assured us that "The next time you hear that, it'll be better."
"Let's read a somewhat naughty poem," he suggested, "I'm trying to follow Keith Flynn." Even with references to fingers in body parts, it was more tantalizing than naughty in nature, yet quite evocative.
After his brother had a serious accident, Donovan wrote "Sleepwalker on the Medicine Wheel" about his attempts to pray his brother better. It was a beautiful poem on a difficult subject ("The blood tide returns the sun"). He read only a few poems today, so I look forward to hearing him read again in the future.
After the reading, I turned to Flynn, who was sitting next to me and had books for sale, asking if he was offering a plaster cast with book purchase. After all I was the only person in the room who had gotten the reference.
"That might require some negotiation," he laughed. I did end up purchasing two of his collections, one from 1994 and the other from 2007, the better to see the arc of his writing.
He signed both very differently, perhaps to satisfy my dual nature (Gemini and all). In "The Golden Ratio," he wrote "For Karen, Poems for your journey through literature into bliss. Yours, Keith Flynn."
In "The Book of Monsters," he penned, "For Karen, So nice to see your lovely face. All best wishes, Keith."
I'm guessing the plaster cast will come in the mail.