April 03, 2011

Greetings from Fort Worth

I cannot fathom a better way to kick off National Poetry Month than to have spent three sunny days in Fort Worth, talking about the life and craft of poetry. Texas Christian University--yes, they of the horned frogs--provided a strikingly bright and lovely and purple-hued space. The TCU faculty (Curt Rode, Dan Williams, Alex Lemon) made sure we were taken care of at every turn. 

My main partner in crime was Ada Limón; though I'd already been looking forward to seeing her, I had no idea how fun it would be to ride around in the backseat, with Lucas driving. When I meet people looking for fresh, sensual, resilient work by a contemporary poet, I send them to Ada's books. She has the most joyful laugh I have ever heard, as well as a stellar collection of shoes. The other participants included Kevin Prufer (whose new poems really intrigue me), Christian Wiman, Art Smith, a trio of Texas Poet Laureates past and present--Karla Morton, Alan Birkelbach, and Paul Ruffin--and someone who held that Other Laureate job, Billy Collins, who delighted us by sticking around after his headliner reading and taking part in the whole conference. 

I hope I did my part to contribute to the discussion. My panels included a presentation on Poetry & the Political, in the context of "Why Does Poetry Matter?" As a DC resident, typical in my cultured diplomacies, the intersection of poetry and politics is an issue I have ambivalence toward. But someone needed to speak to it, and I fumbled my way toward articulating not only some guidelines for what constitutes "political poetry" (a terms I think is used far too loosely) and why poets should pursue writing it. To my right sat Christian Wiman, which was terrifying because 1) I knew he'd have an eloquent presentation on his topic, Poetry & Faith, and 2) many of the key examinations of civic engagement in contemporary American poetry have taken place...on the pages of his magazine. 

Billy Collins sat in, impromptu, on our "Acts of Revision" panel, for which I'd passed out two dirty-laundry drafts of my poem "The Translator" in addition to the final version, and walked through the revising process. Halfway through the panel, I looked down the table to see Billy's copy of my handout covered in scribbles, and I thought Holy god, I hope he's using it as scratch paper. But no. He ended up using my poem to make his points, which felt a teensy-bit like being unexpectedly workshopped before a crowd--a heartstopping moment for any younger poet, though ultimately illuminating. 

Saturday was the juggernaut. Early in the morning I joined two of the Texas poets for a discussion on regionality in American poetry. I made them jump by asking about Cowboy Poetry at one point. My angle was the effects of online communication and technology, which threatens to dissolve the traditions (and in my opinion, positive benefits) of regional affiliation. My advocacy for regionality has a lot more to do with its social impact than how it translates to the page, which led to an interesting back-and-forth with Billy (do I get to call him that now?) during the Q&A. 

Later in the day, I offered a lyric take on "The Writing Life" that stood in contrast to Ada's very practical and compelling advice on seeking "writing" jobs outside academia, and Kevin's thought-provoking look at living "through" book reviewing and editing; "through"because, he said, one can't actually live "on" them. To balance those two I wanted to riff a little--Letters To a Young Poet-style--on the daily risks, revelations, and sacrifices of a living as a poet. Not sure if it worked or not, but it did give me the opportunity to utter the phrase "Great poems are like great sex: they require intimacy and invention." 

At the very end, I actually got to...read some poems. I read with Art Smith, who I've come to adore. I could sit around and talk Theodore Roethke with him for hours. 

On our afternoon off, I prowled around the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, which has a fantastic layout--labyrinthine walls that edge right up to a rippling pool of water; startling visual cliffs on the second floor thanks to interior glass walls; a rooftop garden. Sighted: several mammoth works by Anselm Kiefer that brought tears to my eyes, including "Book with Wings," below. Sighted: Owen Wilson, slipping upstairs for a quick tour of the Ed Ruscha exhibit. Sighted: A woman I have not seen since high school, now an art professor at Texas A&M. 

The Symposium's sponsor, Ronald Moore, is the best kind of patron for the arts--curious about the discussion without being controlling as to its direction. My understanding is that this symposium had, in previous years, been focused on the discipline of philosophy; I hope we won him over to giving the poets a chance in future years as well. At the closing reception we visited his house, where the art on the walls included a Jane Goodall portrait I recognized from the Modern, a Pablo Picasso, and a Francis Bacon. 

Afterwards, a few of us went out for a late dinner, and both Kevin and I dared to take on the Dr. Pepper-BBQed pork chops. Probably not the smartest move at 10 PM. But after three days of eating tater tots, french fries, chips and salsa, and more chips and salsa, we had nothing to lose. When in Texas...


Martha Silano said...

It sounds like a wonderful time was had by all.

How lucky (and startlingly unexpected) you to have Billy Collins not only drop in at your panels but scribble his edits on one of your poetry drafts. I can hardly imagine how that must've felt, in front of an audience no less.

Glad you made time for the Fort Worth Museum of Art. I would definitely have done the same!

I hope someday I get to hear Ada's laugh and see some of her shoe collection, as well as hear her read her poetry (!).

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