Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Best American Poetry 2007 Reading at the New School

On Thursday evening, September 20, 2007, I completed my annual pilgrimage, a celebratory reading of the 2007 edition of the Best American Poetry series (hereinafter referred to affectionately as BAP).

In its 20th year, the BAP series is a fixture in the American Poetry scene. It is surely one of the better selling (if not the best-selling) poetry anthology series and, as a result, it is a lightning rod for criticism, both positive and negative. From the halls of academia (read Harold Bloom's introduction to the Best of the BAP here), to the blogosphere (this poet has seemingly never met a BAP he liked), the series always draws a crowd.

Politics and poetics aside, I love the series. I don't love every poem and I occasionally think, like probably every poet in America, that my best poems are better than some of the BAP inclusions. But these collections are snapshots, a potpourri of the best in the opinion of the editors. There has never been an awards ceremony, a top ten list, or a "best of..." collection in which everyone agreed with the selections.

My appreciation of the series is compounded by the compulsion I have for collecting it, and enhancing it with poets' signatures. The more the merrier. I started in 1997 with a volume signed by 4 poets. I now have 23 volumes (yes, a couple of duplicates) signed by approximately 160 different writers.

Yet, despite the line of books, like pretty maids all in a row, the core element is the reading itself, a celebration of the talent and diversity of the year's volume.

A little disclosure: at the end of the event, during the signing, when I had series editor David Lehman sign the new edition. I mentioned my e-mail to him earlier in the day and he remembered me. And I mentioned how I had the whole run of the series. He looked at me and said "Oh, yes, I think I read your blog."

My heart raced. "From last year's reading?" I offered. "Yes," he said, "someone sent me the link." In last year's post (here), I spoke affectionately about the series. I also blogged it in 2005 Somewhere (I can't find it) I posted a photo of my ever-lengthening row of BAPs. I told him that I'll be bogging the event this year as well. He seemed pleased. "I don't normally read blogs," he said, and I understand why, some people are not so nice, to put it mildly. Mr. Lehman, however, was inclined favorably to BillyBlog.

Keep in mind, dear readers, that I generally am positive about things in BillyBlog, and I am rarely critical. I am of the school of "better to say nothing, than say anything bad". If this report seems gushy and warm and fuzzy, it is because I am a fan of the series, and not because I am worried that Mr. Lehman might be reading this.

The reading started a little late (5 minutes) and I was perched in my favorite seat (C-1) in Tischman auditorium, at the New School.

David Lehman spoke first, and talked briefly about the series and made a surprise announcement that elicited an audible gasp! from the audience. Well, it wasn't really a surprise announcement, just fresh news. The New York Times had reported that day that Alice Quinn, poetry editor for The New Yorker for 2 decades, had stepped down and was being replaced by BAP '05 editor Paul Muldoon. Lehman than spoke a little about this year's anthology and announced that the reading format would be a little different this year.

He stated that first, seven local New York contributors would read, in alphabetical order. Aside from Matthea Harvey and Elaine Equi, they were all in their first BAPs. Then, Lehman continued, the three poets who had traveled the furthest (and are, by far, the most established as writers), would read for 20 minutes each. This trio was the guest editor Heather McHugh, Alan Shapiro and former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky.

The reading began with Kazim Ali (pictured, left) reading The Art of Breathing.

He was followed by MacGregor Card, reading Duties of an English Foreign Secretary: "Moon, refrigerate the weeping child / and guard his frozen brook."

Next was Sharon Dolin (pictured, right) reading Tea Lay.

She was followed by Elaine Equi (pictured, left), reading Etudes.

Next came Thomas Fink (right), performing Yinglish Strophes IX (viewable on page 25 in this online publication).

Then, Matthea Harvey (left) reading From The Future of Terror/Terror of the Future Series. ("From the gable of the window, we shot / at what was left: gargoyles and garden gnomes.")

And last of the seven, Meghan O'Rourke, reading Peep Show. BillyBlog is proud to offer some video this year!

Read Peep Show and several other poems here.

After O'Rourke, David Lehman returned to the stage and spoke briefly about the "big three" poets remaining. McHugh started things off with a funny introduction and then, based on Lehman's insistance, read No Sex for Priests, which she had scribbled on the back of a manila folder, lacking any of her own material in her possession.


The horse in harness suffers;

he's not feeling up to snuff.

The feeler's sensate but the cook

pronounces lobsters tough.

The chain's too short: The dog's at pains

to reach a sheaf of shade. One half a squirrel's whirling there

upon the interstate. That rough around

the monkey's eye is cancer. Only God's

impervious—he's deaf and blind. But he's

not dumb: to answer for it all, his spokesmen

aren't allowed to come.

She followed this with a brief discusion about the enjoyment involved in editing the anthology. Then she read several selections from other poets in the anthology:

Christian Bok: Vowels
Matthew Byrne: Let Me Count the Ways
Robert Creeley: Valentine for You
Charles Harper Webb: Big
Marya Rosenberg: If I Tell You You're Beautiful, Will You Report Me?: A West Point Haiku Series

McHugh finished with her recitation of Richard Wilbur's From Opposites and More Opposites (video below).

Next up was Alan Shapiro who, despite being in his sixth volume of the BAP, I had never heard read before. He announced that he would be reading from a forthcoming volume called Old War, which I would link here, but I can't find any references to it, per se.

Shapiro was excellent, a treat to hear for the first time. I regret only that I captured one of his more serious poems (on video below), as opposed to one of the more humorous pieces that he read.

He started with Eggrolls, a poem that contained a line that he had struggled for "30 years to get ... into a poem" and finally managed to do so.

Here's a bit more about the poem from an online journal called Blackbird:

I overheard a remark in a Chinese restaurant many years ago...I had overheard somebody say this line...thirty years ago, and I always wanted to get it into a poem and couldn't figure out to do it for years and years, and in fact, it had been in different poems that weren't very good. Then I finally found a place for it. I think that's all you need to know. It's called "Eggrolls," and it's about a couple overhearing another couple having a little marital spat.

["Eggrolls" by Alan Shapiro, from Tantalus in Love, published 2005 by Houghton Mifflin.]

Listen: hear him read Eggrolls here (mp3), from a reading at George Mason University on September 15, 2005.

Next he read "Old War," explained further in another excerpt from Blackbird:

In the early seventies, I went to Dublin when I graduated college, and my trip there...coincided with the last terrorist bomb to go off in Dublin, and it's unclear even today whether it was the IRA, or the British who were setting up the IRA, who set off the bomb, but it went off near the Trinity library...and the windows shattered...the poem is inspired by that memory which was occasioned by our justifiable preoccupation with terrorism today, and, again, in a way, it's a poem about what is the place of poetry, a kind of safety and beauty and projection of a kind of civilized mental posture that poetry both, that is the soul of poetry. What place does it have in a world of dirty bombs and dirty politicians?

Another serious poem followed, called Night: "Night of the empty city/My brother eight years dead..."

He followed this with poem After (video below)

This was followed by Country Western Singer, a very funny poem that was his contribution to this year's BAP.

Next was Misjudged Fly Ball, from BAP '06 and now, Shapiro informed us, renamed Outfielder.

He ended with a poem called Open Mic Night in Heaven.

The last poet of the evening was Robert Pinsky. He began by reading Poem of Disconnected Parts. The poem originally appeared in the February 2006 issue of Poetry, and is the first poem in his new book Gulf Music, due out next month (see Amazon link at the end of this post to order).

He followed with The Forgetting, viewable in the clip below.

He followed with both of his poems from BAP '07: Stupid Meditation on Peace and Louie Louie. Next was Immature Song (buried with some other poems here).

Next was a short poem called XYZ:

The cross the fork the zigzag—a few straight lines
For pain, quandary and evasion, the last of signs.

And he finished with From the Last Canto of Paradiso, which is the last poem in his new book.

Normally I give a run down of my scramble for autographs in my BAP anthologies, but it has taken me several days to compose this, so I will summarize. Of all the readers, I was able to get signatures from 10 of the 11 poets. Meghan O'Rourke eluded me. Well, not really. She just left when I was busy with everyone else. I obtained 10 signatures in the BAP '07, amd 15 additional signatures in 12 other anthologies (all BAP's, except for the Pinsky-edited The Handbook of Heartbreak, a fabulous little book. Shapiro signed 7 books, Pinsky 5, McHugh 3. I had one paperback anthology with me (Poetry Daily) which I avoided altogether, and a paperback of a John Ashbery volume, just in case he had shown up.

Everyone was courteous and friendly. Pinsky asked me if I was a dealer or a collector. I truthfully confessed my mania for anthologies. The conversation with David Lehman (mentioned at the beginning of the post) was the high point for me. Very few other anecdotes to relate.

Additional BAP '07 chatter on the web:

Whimsyland tells you "All About BAP"

Moondoggy's Pad reviews it here. And links a review in the Seattle Times.

Some titles mentioned here....

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