Teatro Nacional Sucre, photo by Héctor López

Artist to Artist

Arterial Opera House and Philly’s Poetry Scene

I chose Anne-Adele Wight for Curate This because her poems are a constant rush of poetic experiments, of surprises, of kaleidoscopic gladness, of images that mix fancy with science and art. She animates buildings, for example, a globe-trotting opera house! Who else could have thought of that? She is a force in the Philadelphia poetry scene both because of the reading series she directs and because of her own rip-roaring work that delivers such unexpected pleasures.

– Lynn Levin, Curator

Anne-Adele Wight is the author of Sidestep Catapult and Opera House Arterial from BlazeVOX Books. Her work has appeared in American Writing, Philadelphia Poets, Apiary, Fairies in America, Jupiter 88, Luna Luna, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Bedfellows. Her poem “Nothing but Villas in Tuscany” was selected as the Editor’s Choice in the Sandy Crimmins Poetry Competition. In July she took part in a panel discussion of Pablo Neruda’s work, reading her own translation of one of his poems, for the live TV series Who Do You Love? She curates the monthly Jubilant Thicket performance series and lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two cats. Curate This spoke to Anne-Adele about her most recent book.

CT: Opera House Arterial is quite the inventive series. How did you turn a structure into a living creature with a trickster spirit?

A friend showed me a postcard from Quito, Ecuador. It showed the city in layers. There was a strip of city and then there was the opera house. Behind the opera house were the Andes rising up. I looked at that postcard and something happened in my brain. I felt the picture going deep in and wanting to become something. So I thought, “Oh, it wants to become a poem,” and at first it just didn’t work as a poem. So I put it away for a long, long time, and when it resurfaced I realized it hadn’t gone anywhere at first because it wanted to be 56 poems. I got so into it for a while that everything I wrote turned into an opera house poem.

And eventually that evolved into a mythology in 56 poems. You’ve clearly had a substantial career. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your relationship with the poetry scene in Philadelphia?

So, the series Poets & Prophets was in the city since 1983, and they now hold readings out in Media, Pennsylvania—near where the driving force, Bob Small, lives. I worked with Bob on Poets & Prophets for a long time, and was constantly finding myself running readings, so this is how I learned to do that.

I detached myself from Poets & Prophets three years ago, because I took over the series I now run, which is called Jubilant Thicket. It is a mixed-media series principally devoted to poetry. It was founded by my friend Debrah Morkun, who is an absolutely wonderful, very avant garde poet.

It has been passed onto me and I am doing my best to honor the multimedia aspect, but often we’ll have readings that are entirely poetry. Occasionally we will have a musician or a dancer. A few months ago we had a musician accompanying a dancer, which was quite an accomplishment because we read at Head House books in the children’s section, which is charming, but it is a very small space.

You’ve been in the Philadelphia poetry scene for a while, both working with Poets & Prophets and Jubilant Thicket, but you are not originally from Philly.

I’m originally from Massachusetts around the Boston area, but I’ve lived here for 37 years.

What do you think is specific to Philadelphia’s poetry scene?

The first thing that comes to mind is particular personalities. I think of Frank Sherlock, Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate; CAConrad, who created a whole new poetics and now teaches internationally; Larry Robin, who runs the wonderful Moonstone Arts collective; and people who really shape the way events are run. Another thing that is characteristic here is how many of the same people go to all the readings.

That’s interesting; do you view that as problematic?

No, I think that’s excellent. But one thing I try to do, and this is where it gets a little problematic, I look for readers for Jubilant Thicket who aren’t necessarily going to be people everybody else has heard. I try to find off the beaten track series and they are not always easy to find. I try to be ingenious.

Another thing that is very characteristic is how many events there are. There is something going on practically everyday. You often have to choose between events because you can’t be in two places at once.

So there’s a staple audience, and a plethora of events, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Philly attracts poets. From experience do you think Philadelphia, in fact, attracts poets?

Most definitely, I’ve heard people say they came here for the poetry and the people who don’t move here will often go to great lengths to give a reading.

How can people support local poets?

Go to a reading, buy somebody’s book, talk them up, and make sure you bring as many people as are willing to go to a poetry reading. Being a poet in the busy poetry scene it is easy to forget that not everybody is crazy for poetry. Sometimes you say to a more mainstream person, “Come to this poetry reading with me,” and they go green around the gills. Readings often are held at a bar or a place that serves food and drinks. Try to buy a drink and tip the bartender. The establishment is counting on bringing in some money during the event.

Also, support independent bookstores. They’re endangered and are more likely to host local poets than the larger establishments.

Photo by Héctor López

Franz Kafka etching by Jan Hladík

Transcending Medium

Hearing the Work Aloud and Following Narrative Threads

I chose Valerie Fox for Curate This because her work, whether dark or whimsical, is always sparked with surprise and humanity. She has an affinity for randomly encountered things, such as found objects and pieces of text, and with her darting consciousness she finds amazing ways of stitching her chance finds together. A Drexel University professor, poet and fiction writer, blogger, manuscript developer, and artistic collaborator, she continues to dazzle in many realms.

– Lynn Levin, Poet

In these pieces I am trying to follow through more on the narrative threads that I often include in my poems. I am trying to explain more, give more detail. Also, I started to hear the work aloud and think about it as something to be performed.

The pieces involve a lot of free association and twists (which I started to think of almost as events unfolding or being conjured up in a play). I also am starting to realize I may be returning to a style I tried when I was much younger. The voice here feels less like the personae in my poems, and more like someone walking out and starting to talk on a stage. I am fond of meta-fiction (in its many manifestations) and that’s here too. Part of my poetry-writing process involves getting to a place where I trust the voice. A big goal here was to get to that place in work that wasn’t poetry.

Here is my story, magic not included

You see this outline of a person, crouching behind glass in a storefront. It used to be a place selling shirts and ties. Now there are old things and some antiques. Handmade linen baby gown, Depression glass cake plate, silver cigarette case. Her paws want to grab that cake plate and hold onto it.

This storefront is the center of a world. It’s not an alcove. The storefront connects money and food. Let’s say this is about me since it is. The items in the storefront are clues hiding in plain sight, all about me. I thought this was a minor incident and that I’d have trouble remembering it. Or, I thought it was a too troubling incident and I’d have trouble remembering it.

Back then there was a picture in the living room of a ship tossing about in a stormy sea. That’s how I got the idea I was a sea-vessel. I had some musical phrases in my head about that picture. One was like a quote from Marie Antoinette. I was all dissipated.

In the middle of this story I have to back up in my own footprints.

A friend of mine who hated me half the time made up this game. I would be blindfolded and pluck plastic eggs from her basket, known as the Basket of Fortune. The one I usually plucked was purple and turned you into a monkey, no, it just makes you think you are a monkey.

I didn’t like talking on the telephone but was nevertheless always waiting for a call—The Call.

I had this car when I was nineteen that was maroon but everyone called it brown. It came with a postcard attached to the rearview mirror featuring the famous wide-eyed stare of Franz Kafka. Every time I looked in that mirror I saw this haunted and cloudy face. I probably should have discarded that face, but, I had a pretty fair idea that to do this would be wrong. Wrong so you shouldn’t do it like how you aren’t supposed to clip the tag off a mattress or kill a praying mantis.

Poverty may be relative. So may affection. Religion plays an important part in my life. At age ten, it made me keep wanting to look back. Luckily I never turned into salt. I just kept falling over my feet. That’s what head over heels means. But all I really wanted was a live bird.

I kept wanting this specific live bird I never got. I eventually did get a sense of renewal when I decided to let the musical phrases out of my head. I put them on pieces of paper and glued them all over telephone poles, mailboxes, corner fences, and public restroom walls.

Are these the right streets crossing one other or going one way and not the other? I can’t tell, I don’t go back there much. If I get some money I will try to go there.

I am a wrecked ship.

Con Spirito

There was once a girl who liked to sing. She sang about 60% of her waking hours. She loved her violin teacher who had a positive attitude and heart-warming way to say things, like: Pop out your wrist, Imagine you are a deer, If you don’t eat it is okay to skip your practicing, Play music with your friends, Sing out the notes!

Well, the girl doesn’t like to practice playing her violin lately, or yet, or at least a lot, despite it all. But she likes her regal instructor’s advice. She likes being in the middle of things like songs and improv-ing and warming up for the next number.

She has decided to play with eyes closed. She also likes to walk and play at the same time. Yesterday she tried playing and hopping. In her head she imagines lines being drawn between lots of different kinds of notes and some sparks going off.

She doesn’t wish to be the subject of any kind of debate.

There’s this other thing about the girl. When she sees some people, she can see how they will die. How a person will die appears across their forehead in words. If the person has on a hat, the girl cannot read their future. She also cannot read her own future, even if she sees herself in a mirror.

She sees the words with about half of the people she meets. She is informally conducting a study to determine why she sees the futures of some but not others. As far as she can tell, she is more likely to see the words on the faces of strangers.

Once she got on a train and everyone on the train had “train-wreck” written across their faces. At the next stop she got off. She is old enough to take the train by herself, all alone. She puts that into a song.

Delicious marshmallow. Image by Margaret Kearney.

Tip Jar

If Emily Dickinson Went Camping

Lynn Levin does a lot of things. Levin is a poet, writer, and translator, is adjunct associate professor of English at Drexel and lecturer in creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. She is, with Valerie Fox, co-author of the craft-of-poetry textbook, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2013), a finalist in education/academic books in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Levin’s other recent books include Birds on the Kiswar Tree (2Leaf Press, 2014), a translation from the Spanish of a collection of poems by the Peruvian Andean poet Odi Gonzales, and the poetry collection Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky Press, 2013), a finalist in poetry in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Lynn Levin has received eleven Pushcart Prize nominations. Her poems, stories, essays, and translations have appeared in Ploughshares, Boulevard, The Hopkins Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, E-Verse Radio, Verse Daily, and Garrison Keillor has read her work on his radio show The Writer’s Almanac.

—Amanda V. Wagner, co-founder

Poetry is not a big tent. It is an encampment with lots of little tents in which souls select their own societies. If Emily Dickinson went camping (not likely), she would probably not share a tent with Anne Sexton. But after a hard day of walking in the woods and making poems, I can see the two of them sitting around the campfire relaxing, talking po-biz, looking for shooting stars. Poets who pitch different kinds of poetry tents can be friends, but one does stand by the tenets of one’s own tent.

Here are some tips about what I love best in poetry. I present them with examples from some poets I admire, poets who write emotionally clear, witty, accessible poems that convey love and sympathy for the world.

1. Describe generously

Our world will vanish, therefore imagery, either through straight description or figurative language, is essential. Mark Doty’s poem “A Display of Mackerel” from his book Atlantis never fails to dazzle me with its rapturous descriptions of fish in a market.

They lie in parallel rows,
on ice, head to tail,
each a foot of luminosity

barred with black bands,
which divide the scales’
radiant sections

like seams of lead
in a Tiffany window.
Iridescent, watery

prismatics: think abalone,
the wildly rainbowed
mirror of a soapbubble sphere,

think sun on gasoline.

The poem scintillates with its subject. When you read the whole poem, be sure to catch the brilliant irony: as much as Doty presences the material and the now, he meditates platonically on the idea that there is a truer form of mackerel in “heaven’s template.” Doty expands on his devotion to imagery in the essay “Souls on Ice,” which includes the complete text of “A Display of Mackerel.”

2. Surprise your reader

As a reader, I yearn for the moment in which a startling turn of thought, a comparison, a profound observation slides into a poem. I want to feel that moment of awe, that shiver before a truth I did not see coming.

Surprises can be fierce or gentle. In her poem “Olives,” from her collection Olives , A. E. Stallings slips in a gentle surprise. Her poem begins with a gourmet appreciation of olives, but very quickly the poem turns unexpectedly melancholy:

Sometimes a craving comes for salt, not sweet,
For fruits that you can eat
Only if pickled in a vat of tears—

Stallings chooses the sorrowful “vat of tears” to express the brining. It made me wonder what troubled the speaker’s heart. The diction in the poem also delivers the unexpected. Stallings combines everyday words with seldom-seen terms, always precisely relevant to olives, such as “indehiscent” and “drupes.” The poem surprises line after gorgeous line, and at points it shifts from darkness to light: “The nets spread under silver trees that foil/The blue glass of the heavens in the fall.” And I am struck by the poet’s subtle slant rhyming of “foil” with “fall.” From the diction to the sound effects to the constantly changing emotional and sensory perspectives, Stallings gives me something to gasp about in every line. You can find the whole text of the poem in The New Criterion here.

3. Take a stand without ranting

A poem should be brave enough to take on a political subject, but it should not hector the reader. In her collection Doll, Kim Bridgford uses an inflatable doll as a persona to symbolize women who have been silenced or intimated by sexist partners and a sexist society. Here are a few lines from her sonnet, “Inflatable Doll as Driving Companion”:

No backseat driver, this one’s in the front:
Her upbeat plastic buckled in to go
Wherever you go. This blow-up doll is silent,
Offers her support. I sit; therefore I know.

Bridgford’s wit, formal grace, and her sympathetic and subtly sharp approach empower this poem. You can read the whole poem here.

4. Be funny

I love having fun with dark subjects, and that’s what successful funny poems usually do. They deploy humor to beckon the reader only to slide or pounce into something grave or existentially large. Charles Harper Webb’s poem “Nostalgia’s Not What It Used to Be” from his book What Things Are Made Of, ruminates on an ice cream truck, a fond memory of youth, seen by the speaker hilariously through the lens of social and political critique. The poem begins:

I’m well aware it’s problematic to miss the ice cream trucks
that clinked and tinkled down Candlelight Lane. The name
“Good Humor” privileged bourgeois affability, and valorized
consumption. Songs the trucks played—“Daisy, Daisy”
and “Dixie”—legitimized patriarchy, women’s oppression,
and the Mariana Trench of slavery.

Eventually, the poem travels to an incident in the speaker’s youth involving class distinctions, and then rockets out to a pessimistic view of the future, thus bringing not-so-delightful past in conjunction with fraught future. But there’s so much fun in between. You can read the all of Webb’s poem here.

5. If you can write a happy poem, do it

Mostly you will be pondering lost love, illness, guilt, failure, violence, hurt, and all the other things that flesh and spirit are heir to. The Polish poet Anna Swir wrote about all those things, but here she takes a moment to sample joy.

Happy as a Dog’s Tail

Happy as something unimportant
and free as a thing unimportant.
As something no one prizes
and which does not prize itself.
As something mocked by all
and which mocks at their mockery.
As laughter without serious reason.
As a yell able to outyell itself.
Happy as no matter what,
as any no matter what.

Happy
as a dog’s tail.

Now and then, let your verse celebrate simple pleasant things. Swir’s poem appears in her collection Talking to My Body, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan. You can also read Swir’s poem on the Poetry Foundation website.

Avoid dense brush, swamp land, and other hazards around the poetry encampment

The five tips above spotlight some of what I value in poetry, but I want to point out what I don’t like as well. I do not care for self-consciously academic poems, abstruse poems that prize difficulty, poems with subjective associations I cannot follow, or syntactical weirdness that seems downright ungrammatical. Boring poems, I can’t tolerate them either.

All that said, I know that other poets and readers might find fascinating a text that I consider a flatliner or might dig the challenge of a hermetic poem. I reserve my right to be opinionated. I stand by the aspects of poetry that I revere because I think they help poetry do its job, which is to enlarge our world and abide with us in the wilderness of time.

Image by Margaret Kearney