Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Poetry of the Plural Pronoun

I am a sucker for a man who writes poetry.

In a perfect world, he would write poetry to me, about me, inspired by me, but I can't hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

So instead, I go off to hear poets read to me.

Tonight Poetic Principles was hosting Pulitzer prize-winning poet Charles Wright (!) along with Ellen Bryant Voigt, who has been nominated for the Pulitzer prize for poetry.

The room was uncharacteristically packed and I saw several poets I knew, although not a one who might be inclined to get poetic about me.

Ah, well.

Everything Voigt read was from her new book, much of which had to do with life in Vermont and contained an element of sly humor.

After reading a poem called "Moles," she cracked, "If you have any good solutions for getting rid of moles, let me know."

From "Bears" came a favorite line: "The plural pronoun is a dangerous proposition."

After her last poem, she said, "It's such a great pleasure to get to read with Charles Wright.

From his front-row seat, Wright piped up, "I've decided not to read." The room cracked up.

It was the ideal introduction for a man who balanced understated poems of yearning and acknowledgement with bursts of humor.

His "Appalachian Farewell" got him reminiscing about back in the '40s and '50s having to leave Tennessee to get beer because he lived in a dry county.

"Bedtime Story" included the evocative line, "The forest begins to gather its silences in."

A poem about a '49 Ford, "Appalachian Dog" referred to the car as "a major ride" in 1952 and referenced "Les Paul and Mary Ford records broken in half."

Not long after, Wright peered up and observed, "I can't remember when I came up here. I may read forever."

I don't think anyone in the room would have minded if he had. Okay, maybe the library security people, but certainly no one in that room.

Next he said he'd read some six-line poems. "I fell into writing six-line poems on my way to writing three-line poems. If you can't write a poem in three lines, just get out."

Intentional pause.

"I can't do it."

What he could do was write six-line poems beautifully and we heard several, one with the memorable line, "Empathy is only a one-way street."

Concluding a poem using the words ultimate and penultimate, he said, "I swore on my ancestors' graves in graduate school that I'd never use that word - penultimate."

Throwing his arms out, he quipped, "So sue me."

In "Road Warrior," he wrote, "Roadside flowers drove us to distraction."

Getting near the end, he said, "I've got just two more. One is 40 pages." The man was hilarious.

He closed with the appropriately-titled "Lullaby," with the lovely line, "I've said what I had to say as melodiously as I could."

A poetry lover couldn't ask for any more.

Well except for a man to be melodious about her, but I'm not dead yet.

Leaving the reading, I stepped into the elevator finding a poet I knew, a poetry lover I knew and the woman who sponsors the poetry series.

I wasn't surprised to see any of them.

The poet cocked his head and asked, "Karen, were you at Frightened Rabbit in Charlottesville last night?"

Color me surprised. I hadn't seen anyone I knew.

"I saw you from across the room and then I lost sight of you, but I thought for sure it was you," he explained.

Once down in the garage, we spent five minutes geeking out about how much we'd enjoyed the show (he'd even seen them last month opening for the National in Asheville).

Leaving poetry behind, I went to the Grace Street theater for some direct cinema, a term with which I was not familiar.

Turns out it's the American equivalent of France's cinema verite.

The VCU Cinematheque series was showing the 1968 Maysles brothers pseudo-documentary, "Salesman."

It was the story of four actual door-to-door bible salesmen from Boston who sold high-end, illustrated bibles to poor Catholic families.

Because it was made in '68, the stereotyping was rampant (the Irish were "mickeys") as was the cigarette smoking.

The film starts in the suburbs of Boston before the four salesmen head to Miami to sell down there.

The Florida landscape manages to be cliched, depressing and vaguely art deco at the same time.

Waitresses wear white uniforms (with giant flowers), women at a sales conference in Chicago all have bouffants and sexism is rampant.

"My wife wants to buy a bigger house and have two more kids, so I gotta earn more money," one says.

The fact that the film is a documentary makes it fascinating for the random moments they capture.

One salesman is completely out of his element in Florida - getting lost in cul de sacs with names like Sesame Street and Ali Baba Avenue, not making sales- and he sings "If I Were a Rich Man" whenever he gets nervous in the car.

At one point, depressed and frustrated at his lack of success, he turns on the car's radio and "This Land is Your Land" is on. A scriptwriter couldn't have dreamed up a better song for the moment.

In another scene, he goes up to a house to knock on the door and there's a baby in a high chair on the front porch. Not another person in sight.

When he knocks, the mother answers the door, says she's not interested and closes the door on him.

Her baby is still on the front porch. WTF?

Again, a writer couldn't have conceived of such an unlikely occurrence and yet there it was.

There was a scene where the salesman is trying to sell a couple a bible and the man jumps up and says he got a new Beatles album, putting it on his giant console stereo.

A lush string arrangement of "Yesterday" blares into the room.

This isn't the actual Beatles, this is some schmaltzy orchestral cover and it continues to play, almost drowning out the salesman's spiel.

During the discussion afterwards, we learned that the Maysles brothers shot 200 hours of film and edited down to 90 minutes, a process which took two years.

We spent a lot of time discussing how all that editing effectively turned a work of non-fiction into a fictional piece with documentary elements.

Likewise, I'm sure there's a whole lot of editing that goes into creating a poem, whether six lines or 40 pages.

Not an issue. Should I ever find a poet, he can take as much time as he needs to say what he has to say about me as melodiously as he can.

I shall gather my silences in and work on not driving him to distraction.