Treated Royally to Poetry at The Royale
by Jaime Kelley, Walrus Contributor
Here’s one for you:
What does an invitation, a photographer’s darkroom, a satin bowerbird’s affinity for blue, pieces of a prism, creepy not-so-super heroes, summer camps, street name muses, and barkeeper laments have in common?
Nothing. Except that they are all the stuff that poems are made of…
On April 4th, at the beginning of National Poetry Month, I attended an evening of poetic revelry at The Royale. The event was entitled “Eight Poets and a Sculpture” and had the distinctive flair of mixing artistic media right before our eyes. The Royale, along with hosting the poetry reading, was host exhibitor of a sculpted piece entitled “With Solid Stance and Stable Sound for 2012” by local sculptor Noah Kirby. All eight poets were invited to read at least one poem from behind/inside the sculpted piece.
The lineup consisted of Aaron Belz, Jazzy Danziger, Devin Johnston, Chris King, Stefene Russell, Stephanie Schlaifer, Uncle Bill Green, and Brett Underwood (Stefene and Brent’s poetry are also included in Flood Stage: An Anthology of St. Louis Poets). While not all current residents of the city, all eight poets have intimate connections to St. Louis.
It was a “royale” repast, if you will. An eight-course meal on a prix fixe menu – quite a deal for the price (free) – and I, for one, savored the blend. Some nibbles satisfied, some left me wanting more. To describe all the tastes in detail would be too much, so I’ll share with you the flavors that linger.
Aaron Belz served as the emcee for the evening and offered us a handful of his poems to whet our appetites. Belz did indulge us by reading from both inside as well as from behind the sculpture. He also did his best to goad the other poets into joining him; he was only mildly successful. Three of the eight accepted; the five dissenters claimed a poetic license to resist.
Belz’s poems offered wryness, clever wit, and a painterly distortion of viewpoint. I immediately felt my senses awakening with his playful cadences and found my palette surprised and tickled by his absurdist wordplay. In his poems he brings his subject into an acutely altered focus – I envisioned a dreamlike reality where everything was clear and right in front of my eyes, but nothing was obvious. He is to words as Salvador Dali is to paint.
Jazzy Danziger was next. Jazzy – great name, huh? Great poems, too. Danziger came to the event freshly published – her debut collection Darkroom was released in late March and is the winner of the 2012 Brittingham Prize in Poetry.
Danziger graced us with two of her poems, the second of which was the title piece from her collection. Her wordplay in the poem “Darkroom” belies her background in graphic arts and photography. She treats her audience to the taste of an insider’s knowledge – a family secret for manipulating the recipe – the magic and art of creating images. At the same time, Danziger’s title piece also belies her emotional struggles with the fallacy of the captured and indelible image – the fallacy of memory. Visit Jazzy Danziger’s website: http://jazzydanziger.wordpress.com/ .
Danziger was followed by Devin Johnston whose poems lulled me into a haze with the strength of a port wine. Johnston’s poems were the organic dish of the evening, made of all-natural ingredients. He offered words and images not just as poet, but both as poet and birder, poet and ecologist, poet and biologist, poet and natural historian. I can still see visions of his “Satin Bowerbird,” with its attraction to all things blue. On the whole, though, his poems were so filling and nourishing – like a big meal – I found them slow to digest. I’d like to relish his poems, served as the written word, for my eyes to savor. You can read about Devin and his poems at The Poetry Foundation.
The pace picked up with Chris King who provided, what seemed to me to be the dinner entertainment. Chris King – royal court jester. He opened with “Center City Wise Guy”, moved into “Pieces of Prison”, shared many others and ended with “Before They Set Up the Carnival”. I enjoyed his edgy humor, his biting words, and his off-color topics. He cut through the haze.
Chris King is co-founder and creative producer of Poetry Scores, a St. Louis non-profit arts organization dedicated to translating poetry into other media. He was responsible, in large part, for suggesting that the poets of the evening read from inside/behind the sculpture. Paradoxically, King gave it the royal slip. Visit Chris King’s blog for Poetry Scores: http://www.poetryscores.blogspot.com/ .
Stefene Russell was the next poet to follow and the first taste she offered was a vivid image of an unsettling, not-super-hero character: “Flash, The.” Flash, The is a man I never want to meet. Flash, The is truly a creep. Although Stefene told us in her poem that Flash is “absolved because of a spider and his lack of hearing me,” I couldn’t reconcile with him – he gave me indigestion. Russell’s poetry did not. Like eating key lime pie, her poems surprised and captivated in a tangy, zesty way. Stimulating and provocative, her images endure. You can read some of Stefene’s poems at the LocusPoint.
Stephanie Schlaifer started us off with her poem “Loons” where she took us to summer camp in Maine with her younger self. We were confronted with natural imagery entwined with human entanglement. In fact, much of Schlaifer’s poetry plays with natural events, landscape, and human connection.
The penultimate performer of the night was Uncle Bill Green, a local legend who is, as Belz told us, “hung up on haikus.” Uncle Bill did not hesitate to recite from behind and inside the sculpture. In fact, he topped it off with his own hat, animating the piece and entertaining the crowd. Uncle Bill shared with us a haiku inspired by childhood memories and an old home address “315 Shakespeare St.” He offered a few others, and as this was my first time hearing Uncle Bill’s poetry, I’m still uncertain how much of what he shared was pre-crafted and how
much was impromptu… I am inclined to report he went off the menu quite a bit and cooked up a taste of free-verse for us to chew on.
Brett Underwood, self-declared surly bartender and publicly acknowledged poet, served us last-call for the evening. Underwood was the third and final poet to mix media: he jumped behind the sculpture and gave us a taste of resounding stable sound. Like drinking a shot of tequila at the end of the night – when you don’t want to go home, not quite – Underwood’s poems went down fast and I felt them.
Me? I was thoroughly inspired by the evening’s poems and have started penning one of my own: “The Sculpted Word.” When it’s finished, should I be given the invitation, I will surely read it from inside a sculpted piece…