Last week, Denver poets Oren Silverman, Noah Eli Gordon, Jesse Morse, and Mathias Svalina read their poetry at MAINSITE Art Gallery here in Norman.
The gathering was small and unpretentious. After they’d had a pint at a local pub across the street, the poets arrived just after seven p.m. We chatted for a few minutes before the reading began; the poet Crag Hill gave the introduction: “these poets are stateless; they inhabit multiverses of language…they are the future of poetry rather than the past.” The evening had a flavor of Americana to it, not least because at one point a loud whistle from a train passing through the middle of town interrupted Gordon’s reading. Small talk ranged from college football to an anecdote about the four poets speeding down Flaming Lips Alley in Bricktown the night before—windows down, blasting Flaming Lips songs. Apparently, too, the poets had been kicked out of a hotel at midday for no logical reason—and then promised the hotel manager’s son that “no one from the University of Oklahoma would ever stay there again.” If only you could’ve heard Morse tell the story.
It was clear, though, that these poets take their work seriously, even if they differ in how they define “work” and its relationship to “art.” The poets had been announced for a few weeks as “Denver poets,” words which already imply a kind of school of thought. As always, “schools” are misleading; in each poet’s work I heard differing approaches to poetics, ethics, language. Svalina holds the term “experimental” suspect because it borrows from science and implies a “finding.” What we got on Saturday was undeniably not a Western-enlightened “finding.” Instead, Gordon’s "The Next Year: did you drop this word" offered:
A poem runs the risk
of being meaningfully
a little case study
one can fit inside
We heard critiques of romanticism and nostalgia, including that nostalgia fatal to poetics—the need to reduce a poem to a “meaning.” Gordon seems to have proposed a history of the lyric poem in his performance of “The Next Year,” a piece he’s described as “pretty much an unmasking and an ars poetica in one”:
history of the lyric's
what we do with our
runoff until a garbage
truck rumbling by
wakes our bird too early
with the thought
a city's everything
outside a citizen
In Svalina’s reading, I heard playful absurdism and a blurring of the line between prose and poetry (a line which became blurrier as the evening wore on). Svalina’s work seemed perhaps the most sparse—not in terms of depth or volume, but of space. The walls of the room we were in are a blank off-white, and the room’s small silver ceiling lights scattered shadows about the room, a perfect space to encounter “Red Plastic Cup”, in which a “body’s shadow flows over the asphalt / like water in my cupped hands draining out...As if, were I able to be any thing, / I’d be a red plastic cup.” Svalina also shared work from his newest collection The Explosions. In the collective imaginary built by the four performances, an imaginary which seemed to hold nostalgia suspect, I felt safe—perhaps because of lines like this from “Above the Fold”:
I will hide your grey
within my grey.
It was Ted Berrigan’s birthday, as Morse reminded us. “When I read Berrigan, I thought, ‘I can do this,’” he said before reading “How the Dead Gain Passage.” He shared new poems gleaned from the autocorrect feature on cell phones. While profound, these garnered some laughs. He lent us new geometries inspired by the grace of baseball player Eric Chavez, seeming to answer something of Gordon’s earlier question:
Is there ever a point in cultivating nostalgia? It's not something you water & watch grow. It just happens, hits like a thought. No, that's something you build. I guess I mean it's void of fulfillment, though even that's dubious ground & who'd want to stand outside waiting for the day's instructions?
Perhaps these questions are part of what Crag was getting at when he said these poets are of the future, not the past. But how does one dodge nostalgia in what appears at first glance to be a baseball poem?—this I found myself wondering when Morse read from his “Eric Chavez Sonnets” from Alive at the Center.
Eric Chavez in Portland
How fortunate life lies, Eric, my neverending
birth tonight in Portland, you on rehab
with the Sacramento Rivercats,
I a mere nine rows up!
I can see the contours of your face, your brow even,
the perfect zen in your crouch. Your precise
over-the-shoulder release. The fundamental straightness
of your back. Is that a little belly even?
Every move, every pitch, every waking
high thrust of my spirit simply yards away,
at third, all my lost dreams realized tonight
in your paced extension, gentle lean
slow gait, nervous twitch, gracious act
your glove, my heart.
It’s not really (or perhaps just more than) a baseball poem—it’s a meditation on chance and time and precision, a celebration of the body and its relation to all three of these elements; it’s an exclamation of renaissance in Portland. From each small movement of Eric Chavez spiral innumerable possibilities—“neverending / birth.” Perhaps here is a key element which tied together the evening’s “Denver imaginary” and its incredible heterogeneity: a sense of possibility—where romanticism is upset by delightful absurdity; where nostalgia, “void of fulfillment,” is unwelcome.
Somehow the reading became an ethical experience. There was an urgent quality to it, and not just because our finale was Silverman’s astounding performance—his reading might as well have been a dramatic monologue written for the stage; he spoke more than one voice and “played” more than one role. He voiced a relationship between art and law that spoke to the world in a way that the clearest prose will never be able to accomplish. I agree with Morse when he says that “a proper reading of a poem” must be “multifarious” and “continuing,” and each poet and his work seemed to “talk” to the others, making Silverman’s final poem not just the last piece of the evening, but a zenith of the evening’s intertextualities—a true finale. Svalina handed me a copy of his new book as we all headed to top off our drinks and make conversation. It was an immense privilege to have heard these four in one sitting.