Poetry and Performance; Process and Product

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We could all use more poetry in our lives.  I realized that last Friday night while at a book party for Ed Bok Lee and Patrick Rosal at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.  Both Lee and Rosal read a few long narrative poems-“a subversive act” in our 140 character lives, Rosal said about the form.

“Couldn’t you just listen to these guys all night?,” the executive director of AAWW asked the crowd after the reading.

Yes. I thought.  It was these long poems that spoke to me.  As I listened to Lee read his poems, I watched his body perform them.

“Every Poem is a Performance,” I once heard a poet announce at a reading.   I remember my writing professor, Louise DeSalvo saying, “There’s practice, and there’s performance.”   She reminded us that musicians, dancers, athletes practice every day but they don’t perform every day.  We build up to that.  As writers, we need to adopt a similar understanding.  We work toward that final performance.

Lee’s body knew the words before he spoke them. It was from revision, revisiting, practice  that this poem, this performance was possible.

What I love about going to see poetry performed, is listening to the narrative introductions some poets give about their work.  What inspired this particular poem.  What triggered it.  I sometimes crave that sort of introduction in poetry books.  While the poems themselves do stand alone, I love learning about their incarnation.  Just as their is practice and performance, there is also process and product.

Both Lee and Rosal talked about the earth’s dying languages.  Rosal noted that areas in linguistic decline are also the areas of signficiant ecological loss.  Languages and lives vulnerable to perhaps the same destructive forces.

Lee’s poem “Whorled,” addresses this and opens with:

“Dear speaker in a future age/when only a handful of tongues remain/I write this to you as a song/even as I know it won’t do.”

I enjoyed listening to Lee’s poem “Regenesis” and the backstory of  the “tiny aluminum spoon that could feed crumbs to an ant.”

It was history behind the poem “If in America,” that stirred my interest.  How the story of a Hmong man charged with murder and its portrayal in the New York Times resulted in anger by this writer and later in poetry.  Process is sometimes is equally as fascinating as product.

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