August 04, 2020

Necessity Is the Mother of New Poems

I get leads on projects many different ways, but this is the first time that a neighbor--one with whom I trade cat-sitting favors--has given me a heads-up on a call for poets. Fast-forward to being on the phone with the organizer of an annual local outreach project that usually takes the form of four communal meals staged during the month of August. The Sunday Supper series would have to take a different form this year, due to COVID-19 concerns. 

The question: could I write six poems with one week's notice?

The answer would usually be No. I'm not a particularly fast or prolific poet. If asked to talk about how I come up with a poem, I compare the process to an oyster at work

But I really wanted to take part in this project, to be staged in the Southwest Duck Pond adjacent to our apartment in DC. That's the park I look out over, from our balcony; the park whose quacking ducks keep company on quiet summer days; the park we walk through on our loop to the farmer's market. For me, the Southwest Duck Pond is the heart of the neighborhood, and I couldn't imagine passing on the chance to have poems there. 

As I talked to the organizer, I was pacing our living room. My gaze fell on a copy of Yoko Ono's Grapefruit. That was the solution, I realized: action poems.

I don't know if there's any singular or formal definition of an "action poem" but they are usually simple in their premise, a text that stages a series of steps or philosophical considerations (they have a counterpart in Ono's "pieces," such as Cut Piece, where the emphasis is on the actual engagement versus the prescriptive text). 

As a student at the University of Virginia, I fell in love with Ono's work through a literature class that had us considering it alongside Ishmael Reed, Djuna Barnes, Tillie Olsen, and other counter-culture icons. If I visit a museum with a significant Fluxus holding, I go in search of her work. The big and heavy, blue-foil-covered 2000 edition of YES was my first experience with getting a "fancy" art book; I'd bought Grapefruit from Brooklyn's now-defunct BookCourt as a travel edition, something I could share with students. 

The project organizer signed off on the umbrella concept. Now I wouldn't have to come up with six separate premises--but I still needed six distinct ideas. My husband and I sat out on the balcony over the weekend, brainstorming what we thought of when we thought of the SW quadrant, and why we'd moved here five years ago. The next morning, he presented me with a Post-It on which he'd jotted notes. 

The night before deadline, I was up for hours but it was a happy energy. Most poets will admit a crisis of confidence after we finish a book. Is that it? Is that the last poem I'll ever write? I knew that these texts were engaging themes in Made to Explode--which has a whole section of prose poems dedicated to DC--but they felt distinct, new, in part because a public art installation requires a different energy. And oh, it felt good simply to be word-smithing and line-breaking again. 

The installation went up yesterday. In lieu of the actual long table with 25 chairs of years past, a chalkboard-covered mock table invites comments from passersby, while two oversized chairs model a social distance. On fifteen of the bright red rocking chairs that are a signature, a mesh pouch holds a laminated, ring-bound booklet featuring the work of seven local poets, alongside conversation prompts and suggestions for additional reading; an online component shares all the poems, plus streamable playlists from DC DJs. 

As I write this, a tropical storm is passing through the city. So I have to hope that those laminated pages are water-tight, and that the letters in "community" are fastened to stand against high winds. I have to keep faith that the sun will come back, and people will gather to the duck pond to sit in the rocking chairs and read poems. Nothing's easy in 2020. But I'm still here, and you're still here, and that's a start to something.