Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Tribute to Barbara Guest

On Saturday, April 26, 2008, I attended a tribute reading at St. Mark’s Poetry Project for the poet Barbara Guest, who died in February 2006. Scheduled readers were Charles North, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Erica Kaufman, Peter Gizzi, Rena Rosenwasser, John Ashbery(!), Kathleen Fraser, Richard Tuttle, Susan Bee, Africa Wayne, Charles Bernstein, Ann Lauterbach, Marjorie Welish and Hadley Guest. In case you didn’t know, I thrive on readings with multiple readers. The more, the merrier, so this event appealed to me immensely.

In addition, when I told my friend Brian that I was considering going, he was extremely jealous (always a good sign), and requested to send me a few books for Richard Tuttle, an artist he admires a great deal.

His sending me the books sealed the deal, as it turned out, for my youngest daughter had a baseball game from which I had to leave early, and my brother was in town visiting. But Saturday readings are always more convenient, so my going turned out to be less inconvenient than it could have been.

I arrived about fifteen minutes early, after a detour to my office, where I picked up a dozen books (give or take a few) to get signed by the various folks in attendance. There were very few people waiting, a couple of whom were the aforementioned readers. I was pleased by the signs posted announcing the event was free. That’s always an extra bonus.

The doors opened and I grabbed my customary seat, second row, outside aisle on the right side of the church, behind the row marked RESERVED.

I scanned the program (below) for posterity.

People wandered in slowly. Rena Rosenwasser and Marjorie Welish sat in the front row ahead of me. Tuttle and Berssenbrugge joined them shortly after 1:00. At 1:06, I noted “barely 50% capacity” as I looked around. John Ashbery was tardy by 10-15 minutes and he sat on the left side of the room, in the inner aisle seat, the whole front row of his section for himself. I bided my time, lost in thought. Rosenwasser was talking about a recent trip to Hawai’i and her experiencing the current volcanic activity there. A literary critic named Terry Diggory sat next to me chatting with Welish. Lit Crit was my worst class in college, so I could only understand about half of what they said. I’m sure it was interesting, but I wasn’t motivated to eavesdrop and blog about their private conversation.

Also to note, the painter Jane Freilicher sat in my row. And at some point, the poet Jeanne Heuving came up and chatted with Welish and gave her a copy of her book. All other participants were sitting behind me. The reading commenced at about 1:20 PM.

As I summarize the reading, I will hyperlink poems and book titles, when possible. An (mp3) hyperlink following the title should link to Guest reading the poem in question, thanks to the awesome archive at Penn Sound.

I also have a few video clips from a trio of readers at the tribute.

Charles North had the honor of beginning the reading which he said was a “non-labor of love for everybody, I’m sure”. He started with “Another July” and “Roses” from Guest’s book Moscow Mansions. He concluded with “The Location of Things,” (mp3) the title poem for one section of her Poems.

The next reader was Mei-mei Berssenbrugge.

She read sections 1-6 and 11-12 of the poem “The Screen of Distance,” which appeared originally in Fair Realism.

Of all of the poets, Ms. Berssenbrugge gave the most evocative reading. She read clearly and crisply in a voice colored by passion for the work of Ms. Guest.

Next was Erica Kaufman. She read three poems: “Color” from The Confetti Trees, “Unusual Figures” from If So, Tell Me, and “Photographs” from Miniatures and Other Poems.

Next up was Peter Gizzi. Gizzi wrote the introduction to Guest’s Collected Poems, which was published by Wesleyan University Press.

He read three poems: “Safe Flights” from The Location of Things, “A Reason” from The Blue Stairs, and “Shelley in the Navy Colored Chair” which he noted was one of her last poems and was dedicated to her editor at Wesleyan.

Gizzi was followed by Rena Rosenwasser, who read an excerpt from “Symbiosis

Next up was John Ashbery who, I wondered, was going to likely have difficulty mounting the stairs to the podium in the sanctuary from which everyone had been reading. Ashbery still appears to be in good health, but does walk with the assistance of a cane. My concerns were quickly dashed when a Poetry Project volunteer went up and carried the podium down the stairs, so Mr. Ashbery could read from the main part of the floor.

Ashbery read four poems, not in the order printed on the program. He prefaced the poems with a biographical anecdote that brought smiles to the faces of the audience. I recorded that here:

He began with “Persians in Minneapolis,”

the first of the four poems he was reading from The Countess from Minneapolis.

Next he read “June”

followed by “Crocus Hill” and “Amaryllis”.

The first half of the reading concluded with a recording made by Kathleen Fraser, who could not be in attendance.

Ms. Fraser indicated that she was in Italy, and that a very nice proprietor of a music store in Rome was assisting her in recording her segment. She cited a quote by Ms. Guest from an interview the two of them had participated in, which is available in its entirety here.

She then read an excerpt from The Turler Losses.

There’s an excerpt of Guest, in 1984, reading from the same poem here (mp3).

The poem appeared originally as a monograph in a Canadian publication, but was later republished as the endpiece of her 1989 collection Fair Realism.

Normally, when providing these recaps, I wait until the end to discuss the autographs I get from participants. However, there was some activity during intermission, so I will throw it in here. It’s actually pertinent, as well, to something that occurred in the second half of the reading.

Several things happened when the intermission began. Richard Tuttle, who was the most-desired autograph-giver, as my friend Brian had gone to the trouble and expense of sending me a couple of his books from Canada, departed for what I presume was the restroom. At the same time, someone approached John Ashbery with a stack of books, with nice mylar coverings. A huge fan or a book dealer, I guessed.

Ashbery was about to engage in conversation with a gentleman who approached him to talk when he noticed the book-laden gentleman to his left, looked apologetically at the other guy, and shrugged with a “ah-the-price-of-fame” resignation. I quickly replaced the Tuttle books in my bag and grabbed the Ashbery items I had. I left behind three Best American Poetry (BAP) anthologies and approached with four books, two of mine and two of Brian’s (sent years ago as part of our normal transcontinental book exchange program).

Ashbery was cordial enough, inscribing my paperback copy of A Wave: Poems,
2 books of Brian’s, and under his photograph in Christopher Felver’s Angels, Anarchists & Gods.

Almost catastrophically, I opened the book up to the page after Ashbery’s photo, which featured Robert Bly. There was a brief second of awkwardness before I realized the mistake, turning the page back to Mr. Ashbery’s photo. Coincidentally, his picture was opposite Ms. Guest’s, which I mentioned to him and which he seemed to appreciate.

After sitting back down, I noticed Mr. Tuttle had not returned so I pulled out my BAP ‘88 and asked Marjorie Welish, sitting in the row in front of me, if she wouldn’t mind signing her poem “Respected, Feared, and Somehow Loved” in the anthology. She looked at me and asked, “And who are you?” I introduced myself and she kindly signed her name on the page.

Still no sign of Tuttle, so I regrouped and went up to his wife, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, who had read so wonderfully earlier. I also had her sign BAP ’88, but BAP ’90 as well, in addition to a fascinating poem in The Iowa Review (Vol. 26, Issue 2). Ms. B. was very nice and happy to warmly inscribe all three copies.

In the BAP ’88, she inscribed her poem “Chinese Space”: “For Bill/in celebration of Barbara Guest/Mei-mei/Spring 2008”. In the BAP ’90, she inscribed her poem “Jealousy” the same way, replacing “in celebration of Barbara Guest” with “with Barbara Guest’s poetry”. And in The Iowa Review, she inscribed it without any further embellishment, on the poem “The Doll,” which is, to accommodate line lengths, printed vertically on the pages.

I thanked her profusely for her kindness and told her how much I enjoyed her recitation of Guest’s poems. I also mentioned that I was looking forward to meeting her husband, as a friend of mine had sent down some books for him to sign as well.

I returned to my seat and it appeared as if the reading was going to resume shortly. Tuttle came back into the room. People were returning to their chairs. I saw Tuttle go over to his seat and pick up two bags and move them to the side of the sanctuary. I didn’t give it much thought, but I guessed he was giving himself more legroom.

The reading resumed with Richard Tuttle ascending to the microphone. He talked a little bit about his collaborations with Guest and then read an excerpt from “Dürer in the Window; Reflections on Art”.

Here’s a clip:

When he finished, he walked down from the altar, I guess (this is a church), gave a short wave to his wife, picked up his bags, and walked toward the door.

This, dear reader, provided me with a conundrum. There was a poetry reading in progress, but I had come, in great part, out of a sense of obligation to a friend north of the border who was expecting great things from me, in terms of having his books inscribed. In fact, had his books not arrived so expeditiously from the Great White North, I most likely would have skipped the event to spend time with my family.

But he was going, going, gone. What could I have possibly done?

“Mr. Tuttle!” I called to the man who had just stepped into East 10th Street outside of the church. Inside, Susan Bee was reading at a Barbara Guest Tribute.

The artist in front of me turned uncomfortably toward my voice. I was holding a padded mailer in one hand and a pen in the other. I was slightly out of breath, having fast-walked out of the sanctuary, then dashed through the courtyard, out of the gates and onto the sidewalk. I could feel passers-by watching the scene unfold in front of them. I explained my dilemma. I was removing the books from the mailer and talking as I looked at him, imploringly. He looked extremely nervous. I don’t like making people uncomfortable.

He was clearly trying to get somewhere fast and said he couldn’t help me, he was in a hurry. I must have looked disappointed. He quickly said, “You can leave them with my wife,” gave me an apologetic glance, turned, and walked quickly away toward Stuyvesant Street.

I walked dejectedly back into the church. I sat down in the back waiting for the current reader to finish. I believe I missed Susan Bee entirely and was watching Africa Wayne. I can’t quite remember, I was still rattled and disappointed.

For the record, Susan Bee read from Guest’s novel Seeking Air.

Africa Wayne read “The Blue Stairs” from the book of the same name, “In Slow Motion” from If So, Tell Me, "Nostalgia of the Infinite" [hear Guest reading this one here (mp3)] from The Red Gaze and “Petticoat” from Miniatures and Other Poems.

Of course, I remember none of Africa Wayne, sitting in the back of the sanctuary, completely bummed about Tuttle. Wayne finishes. Applause. I return to my seat.

Next up is Charles Bernstein, the preeminent L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet. He read from his essay “Composing Herself” in Jacket 29. Here’s part of the most memorable part of the excerpt:

Guest’s insistence on detachment, as she calls it, or let’s just say her restrained elegance, is exemplified in her attraction to lapidary surfaces that set her apart from many of the most innovative “New American” poets of the ’60s, with their various projections of spontaneity, insouciant informality, the visceral, camp irony, or pop inflection. These same “distances” made her even more unavailable to Official Verse Culture, exemplified, as Linda Kinnehan has noted, in James Dickey’s Kenyon Review response to Guest’s first trade book, which was published by Doubleday in 1962: “Miss Guest,” Dickey assures us, “abolishes relationship, and consequently abolishes value.” If we take Dickey’s comment as a declaration of Guest’s—and by extension American poetry’s—independence….

In his prescient review, Dickey admonished the new poets: “They expect the reader to work devotedly for them to solve conundrums, to supply transitions, to make, out of a haphazard assortment of building materials, a habitable dwelling.

Guest never fit in to our pre-made categories, our expectations, our explanations. She wrote her work as the world inscribes itself, processually, without undue obligation to expectation. These poems unravel before us so that we may revel in them, find for ourselves, if we go unprepared, the dwelling that they beckon us to inhabit.”

After Bernstein came Ann Lauterbach, who read three poems. First was “An Emphasis Falls on Reality,” then “The Nude” from Fair Realism and last was “The Glass Mountain” from Defensive Rapture. I taped “The Nude” below:

The penultimate reader was Marjorie Welish whose coolness to me during intermission (sorry, I’m hypersensitive) was forgotten by her wonderful reading from Rocks on a Platter: Notes on Literature. Her pacing and tone were exemplary and thoughtful.

Lastly was Ms. Guest’s daughter, Hadley Guest, reading from Quilts.

The reading ended and people milled about. I made a beeline for Ms. Bersenbrugge and explained what happened with her husband. She looked at me understandingly and seemed to feel bad for me, giving me what I described in an email to Brian shortly thereafter as “that remorseful, well, he is a tortured artist” look. I asked her if he had an agent, or gallery that represented him. “No,” she shook her head, “he doesn't even have an assistant”.

“I wouldn't want to burden you with these books,” I say.

“What are they?” she asks.

I unsheathe them from their envelope. “Catalogues”, I think, “my friend Brian in Toronto is a HUGE fan and these are the two he dared mail me. He wants them inscribed to him, he's not a book dealer, he just loves to collect signed books from artists he loves.”

Ms. Bersenbrugge was too kind, going out of her way to give me their address, should I want to endeavor on the risky proposition of mailing them the books, with return postage. That was the best that I could do.

The remainder of the post-reading festivities involved tracking down the other poets and gathering their autographs in my plethora of anthologies.

Peter Gizzi signed his entries in BAP ’95 (“Another Day on the Pilgrimage”) and ’02 (“Beginning with a Phrase from Simone Weil”).

Gizzi was very nice and friendly. When signing the BAP ’02, we talked briefly about how great Bob Creeley was (he edited that edition), and how Gizzi truly missed him. He was very genuine in his discussion with me and not at all dismissive.

Bernstein signed three things for me: he signed over his name in the table of contents on the premiere issue of New American Writing. He also signed his entries in BAP ’92 (“How I Painted Certain of My Pictures”) and ’02 (“12²”).

And Charles North signed 2 things: BAP ’95 (“Shooting for Line”) and ’02 (“Sonnet”).

I also spoke with Ann Lauterbach about her reading, briefly. She felt a little bad that she couldn’t do it the justice she wanted. She praised Bersenbrugge and Osherow for reading more in the style of Guest than she was able to. Nonetheless, she seemed thrilled that I had taped her reading and gave me her blessing to post it on YouTube.

And finally, on a very side note, prior to leaving I talked to a guy named Matt, who had an Aubrey Beardsley-inspired tattoo of Salome. Check it out here, on Tattoosday.

It was a wonderful event and I thank all the writers and artists (if any of you are reading this), for a memorable tribute.


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