Monday, March 10, 2008

Best American Erotic Poems Reading, KGB, March 10, 2008 (part 1)

On Monday evening, March 10, 2008, while most of New York State was watching the news, recoiling from or salivating over the breaking news about our governor, Eliot Spitzer, who earlier that day had confessed to “involvement” in a prostitution ring, I was headed to the KGB Bar in the East Village.

I was going to my first poetry reading at KGB (although I did hear Tibor Fischer and Debra Weinstein read there on a Sunday fiction evening in 2004). The bar has hosted a Monday night poetry series since 1997. It is almost embarrassing to admit that this was my first Monday night at KGB. In light of the recent tawdriness in the news, it was almost too good to be true: the reading was for the anthology Best American Erotic Poems: From 1800 to the Present.

Published by Scribner just last month, this volume is edited by David Lehman, the series editor of The Best American Poetry (BAP) series.

As anyone familiar with yours truly can affirm, the BAP series, ever since the fateful day (November 3, 1997) when I went to a reading at the Park Avenue Borders for the BAP 97, has been an obsession of mine. That evening, I had Don Hymans, Charlie Smith and I believe David Lehman sign my copy. Billy Collins was scheduled to appear but didn’t make it.

I have added 22 additional signatures since then to that one volume alone. But, I digress. We’ll talk signing later.

I arrived at KGB just a few minutes before 7:00, hoping I would still be able to find a seat. Apparently, I either misread or saw a posting with an errant time listed, as the reading didn’t officially start until 7:30. I arrived at the same time as Mr. Lehman, and we climbed the steps up to the bar together. I mentioned how much was enjoying the BAP blog.

As people trickled in and I nursed an Amstel Light, I pondered the tattoo on the right arm of the bartender. My tattoosday hat was on, but I decided against disturbing her while she worked to ask about it. One of the poets reading, Janice Erlbaum, sat down next to me and we chatted a bit, along with her husband, Bill. I took the time during the pre-reading lull to get her to autograph her poem in the anthology, along with a poem she had contributed to the volume Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café.

At about 7:45, the bartender turned off the music and David Lehman rose and moved to the podium. He introduced the book and thanked everyone for coming. He began by reading a couple of selections from the book, starting with a wonderful poem by Hart Crane called “Episode of Hands” [Please note: I will be hyperlinking poems that can be read on other sites]. Crane’s poem takes an act of administering first-aid, and charges it with a beautiful eroticism. Next, Lehman read “To the Harbormaster by Frank O’Hara.

Finally, David acknowledged that he did not have a poem in the anthology, but that he slyly managed to “sneak” in a poem in the volume’s introduction, “piggybacking on Cavafy’s shoulders.” He was referring to the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy and his “Poem in the Manner of C.P. Cavafy” which ends the introduction. He then told us who the first five readers would be, the order in which they would read, and how, in the contributor’s notes, many of the poets had offered up what they considered to be the most erotic piece of literature for them. Mr. Lehman indicated that those inspirations might be called upon to accompany the individual’s own contributions to the volume.

Star Black was the first poet to read. She first asked for “a moment of silence, sexual silence, for our governor.” She referred to the “diamond-studded evenings of our governor” before embarking on the second half of a double sonnet by H. Phelps Putnam called “Sonnets to Some Sexual Organs.” It was definitely as raunchy (and poetic) as one would imagine.

Ms. Black, who co-founded the KGB poetry series with Mr. Lehman, opined more on Mr. Spitzer, offering some juicy sound bites. She sighed, “it seems no man is exempt from biology.” She also expressed that she did not feel that he should resign, expressing her “hope [that] the governor doesn’t step down for being a guy.”

Also to note, she offered up an amusing anecdote that a man once referred to her as a “painted bride of Satan, all in the midst of lovemaking.” Then she explained that “he was a Brit,” as a way of explaining why he would have spoken so colorfully.

She then read her poem from the anthology, a sonnet called “The Evangelist” which, she explained, not only alludes to Jim Baker and his ilk, but to “every guy that’s been caught.”

The night was off to a rollicking start.

Next was Marc Cohen (no relation), who I had never heard read before. He started off by saying that he was glad that Star had used the “c” word (courtesy of Putnam’s poem), because he was going to use the “f” word. He began with his poem from the volume, entitled “It Never Happened”.

Next, he read “Sweet” Emily Dickinson’s poem #315 (He fumbles at your Soul).

And he finished with an excerpt from his favorite piece of erotic literature, the first dream in Arthur Rimbaud’s Deserts of Love.

He prefaced this with his introduction to the piece from the contributor’s notes. Cohen’s segment was interestingly balanced between his 21st century erotic poem, contrasted with the much capitalized and dashed sparseness of Dickinson’s verse, and then shaken up by the brilliance of Rimbaud.

Janice Erlbaum, the poet who was sitting next to me, read next. She read beautifully and I could certainly hear the fluidity of a spoken word influences.

She read her sestinaThe Temp."

Prior to the reading, she had mentioned to me how much she liked Jill Alexander Essbaum’s contribution to the anthology, “On Reading Poorly Transcribed Erotica." That was what she read next.

Lastly, she read a found poem, entitled “Go Me,” which was graffiti she discovered in the New Rochelle train station restroom. It was raunchy yet erotic, grammatically mangled, and downright beautiful. It brought down the house.

I was pleased to discover that Janice talked about the reading on her web page here, including the text of "Go Me" and another sestina she didn't read due to time constraints, but surely would have been a memorable experience.

Jennifer L. Knox followed Janice Erlbaum. I first “experienced” Jennifer at a BAP 2006 reading (recap here). Her “Hot Ass Poem” has achieved semi-cult status and Maggie Wells, reading later in the evening, evoked it in her contributor notes, presumably as one of her erotic faves.

Jennifer presented two Denis Johnson poems.

First, she read Johnson's “Poem” from the anthology:


Loving you is every bit as fine

as coming over a hill into the sun

at ninety miles an hour darling when

it's dawn and you can hear the stars unlocking

themselves from the designs of God beneath

the disintegrating orchestra of my black

Chevrolet. The radio clings to an un-

identified station - somewhere a tango suffers,

and the dance floor burns around two lovers

whom nothing can touch - no, not even death!

Oh! the acceleration with which my heart does proceed,

reaching like stars almost but never quite

of light the speed of light the speed of light.

Next, she read Johnson’s poem “Heat”, which she said reminded her of Oscar and Lucinda, in which the two main characters, who are gamblers, appear to be at their most erotic when they are analyzing their “tells.”

She finished with her marvelous “Another Motive for Metaphor”.

Laura Cronk was the last poet before intermission. She is one of the co-curators of the KGB series. I had last heard her read at the same BAP reading as the one Jennifer Knox was at, as referenced above.

She alluded to her pregnancy, crediting the erotic nature of poetry for contributing to her present state. That elicited a chuckle from the crowd. Laura read her poem “From the Other”.

Laura then concluded the first half of the reading with Amy Lowell’s “Anticipation”.

Some of the books mentioned above:

Part 2 of this post is here.

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