By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – September 5, 2015) — “Whatcha doing tonight, Brian?” my friend Stephen asks?
Stephen asks me because I’m the guy that’s always finds cultural events around town to take in, digesting them like a fine dinner.
“You probably don’t want to know,” I retort. “No, really, I do” Stephen responds.
“I’m going to a poetry reading,” I say confidently. Stephen rolls his eyes, looks over at another person in the room and points his thumb at me.
Now don’t get me wrong: Stephen is a cultured guy—he was the leader of a successful rock band, touring the world. And to his cultural credit, we’ve attended a couple of art gallery events. So he’s no slouch. But the thought of sitting through a night of poetry readings just didn’t resonate with him.
“I’ll pass,” he says.
I’ve heard that many times before: “I’ll pass.” And I can never figure out why.
Listening to a fine poet read his or her work is an exhilarating experience. It’s like drinking water after a strenuous run. Or sitting through a mathematics lecture and actually understanding what the person is speaking about. Poetry is one part art and two parts life. Poetry speaks of our humanity, our fears, hopes, and desires, and holds them out to the world, saying, “Look! This is existence—and you’re a part of it!”
To pass on a good poetry reading is like passing on a piece of subsistence, an actuality of being.
But, hey, if I can’t count on a friend to attend the reading, I could my family. Together we load up the truck and head to the reading.
I’ve attended many poetry readings at Bookworks, one of Albuquerque’s independent bookstores. And each time I walk through the doors, I get a sense of excitement. Will the reading be good? Will people actually come out? What book will I buy?
This time was no different.
As I browse through the half-dozen poetry books on the display table, I look over and see the poet, Tony Hoagland, standing, getting ready to read. He is, after all, the reason I’m here. I buy his book Donkey Gospel at the counter and walk over to say, hi.
“Thanks for coming,” I say. “You live in Texas, don’t you?”
“Part of the time,” Tony responds. “And I live part of the time in Santa Fe. My wife works in the City. I go back to Texas when I need to teach at the university.”
We chat about the difference between being a “local” poet or a poet from “out of town.” After some jesting, Tony smiles at me, “You’re so provincial. I’m waiting for a gawl-lee!” I laugh. I’d give him more teasing, but his time for talking was upon us.
For those not familiar with Tony Hoagland, a little information is needed. He’s an award-winning poet and teacher at the University of Houston. Hoagland is the author of several books of poetry, chapbooks and essays. His poems pack great energy, wit, and tantalizing insight into the human condition. The American Academy of Arts and Letters described Hoagland’s imagination as, “intimate as well as wild.”
I’ve admired Hoagland’s work for years, since the first time I read it in Poetry Magazine. This was my first time I was able to hear him live.
After a short introduction, Tony got up in front of the crowd—maybe 30 of us, all chairs taken—and gave us an introduction of his format. He said he preferred to read from paper, rather than books. He further told us that we could take one of the sheets of paper the poems were written on after his reading, nabbing a piece of the experience.
Did I hear him right? We could sort of nab the poems that touched us? How cool is that?
To give you a blow-by-blow of the reading would be unmeritorious. Tony is a fine poet; too good to treat like a football match. True, he made us laugh, and he made us cry—as the saying goes. But he also gave us penetrating insight into existential moments of thought. Or to put it another way—he held a mirror up to humanity and said, here you are; he made us feel, understand, and think.
As I listened to the 45-minute reading, I couldn’t help but think which poem I’d nab. Would it be his political poems? The humorous and witty poems? The thoughtful, loving poems? Then he began a poem entitled Bible Study. He read, “Who would have imagined that I would have to go/ a million miles away from the place where I was born/ to find people who would love me?/ And that I would go that distance and that I would find those people?”
I was intrigued. Not only did the title of the poem draw me in, but the thought of what he’d do with the poem—the territory of words—would be a fascinating journey.
Tony continued: “In the dream JoAnne was showing me how much arm to amputate/ if your hand gets trapped in the gears of the machine;/if you acted fast, she said, you could save everything above the wrist/ You want to keep a really sharp blade close by, she said.”
Not what I expected. I was drawn in, loving every word morsel.
Hoagland continued in his high tenor voice, his red vest and baseball cap acting as his prop: “Now I raise that hand to scratch one of those nasty little scabs on the back of my head,/ and we sit outside and watch the sun go down, inflamed as an appendicitis over western Illinois/—which then subsides and cools into a smooth gray sea.”
I sat, betaken by the words.
Hoagland read on: “Who knows, this might be the last good night of summer.
My broken nose is forming an idea of what’s for supper.
Hard to believe that death is just around the corner.
What kind of idiot would think he even had a destiny?
“I was on the road for so long by myself,
I took to reading motel Bibles just for company.
Lying on the chintz bedspread before going to sleep,
still feeling the motion of the car inside my body,
I thought some wrongness in my self had made me that alone.
“And God said, You are worth more to me
than one hundred sparrows.
And when I read that, I wept.
And God said, Whom have I blessed more than I have blessed you?
“And I looked at the mini bar
and the bad abstract hotel art on the wall
and the dark TV set watching like a deacon.
“And God said, Survive. And carry my perfume among the perishing.”
I knew then and there that I needed to nab Bible Study .
After the reading—when Tony was signing books—I went up to the table to flip through the papers. A lady joined me, looking for her favorite poem. Then I realized: Tony didn’t read Bible Study from a piece of paper; he read it from a book, one of the few. Drat!
“What poem are you looking for,” Tony asked?
“Bible Study,” I replied. “I don’t think it’s in here, but you can get it online—the Poetry Foundation, I think,” he said as he continued to sign books.
Good, I thought. I need that poem. In it’s place I reached for a poem called “Edge of the Frame.” One of the middle stanzas of the poem reads: “What Is a human? What does it mean?/ It seems a crucial thing to know…”
Ah, yes, a good question: what does it mean to be human? I think part of our meaning is to realize that we are a community of beings moving along in this thing called life—together and tethered. And in a small way, poetry makes the journey a tad more savory; a feast to experience exposed.
So next time I’m asked why I attend poetry readings, I’ll remind them that it’s part of being human, a “crucial thing to know.” And when they stop to stare or wonder at what I mean by the statement or point a thumb my way, I’ll remind them that I’m carrying “my perfume among the perishing.”
And I hope the fragrance is refreshing enough for people to join me.
Photo captions: 1) Tony reading at Bookworks. 2) Donkey Gospel by Tony Hoagland. 3) Application for Release from the Dream by Tony Hoagland. 4) Brian Nixon with ANS founder, Dan Wooding, pictured during Dan’s recent visit to Albuquerque.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA) and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon
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