Category Archives: The First Time

The First Time: Cecily Parks hears Gwendolyn Brooks

Today’s guest for The First Time column, in which poets talk about the first poetry reading they attended, is Cecily Parks, the author of Field Folly Snow (University of Georgia Press, 2008) and the chapbook Cold Work (Poetry Society of America, 2005). Her poem “Silviculture” appears in issue 16 of Memorious.

 One Sunday Evening

I went to high school at a boarding school in Massachusetts where boys were required to wear blazers and ties, and girls were required to wear dresses, skirts, or slacks with blazers, like the boys.  On Sunday evenings after dinner, we congregated in what was called the Memorial Building and sat on the floor while teachers or student groups made announcements about the coming week.  One Sunday evening, Gwendolyn Brooks read her poems to us.

It makes me sad that I can’t remember what year this was.  It makes me sad to think that I probably wasn’t that interested in hearing Gwendolyn Brooks, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and former Poet Laureate, read us her poems.  In high school I was good at biology and planned on becoming a veterinarian.  When I read books, I read novels about animals.  When my English teacher suggested that I write about The Waste Land my senior year, I told him that Eliot’s poem would be too hard for me to analyze.  (What karma I flung into the universe in that moment, only to have the sentiment that “poetry is hard” boomerang back to me innumerable times over the past thirteen years that I’ve been writing and teaching poetry.)

I remember Gwendolyn Brooks as a tiny, old woman with a fierce speaking voice. Was this true?  How many readings had she given at that point?  Did she find it at all remarkable to be reading her poems to a group of privileged students dressed in Sunday School clothes in rural Massachusetts, or is it just me who finds it remarkable?  I teach Gwendolyn Brooks in my poetry classes now.  I love her poems.  I can’t remember anything she read that night, with the exception of what is perhaps her most famous poem, “We Real Cool.”

The Memorial Building, where Gwendolyn Brooks read, was dedicated in the 1950s to the boys from our school who died in World War II.  When the reading ended, we did what we did every Sunday night.  We streamed out of the Memorial Building into the grassy quad and the night.  Mountains and farms encircled us.  Couples disappeared into the woods for a few precious minutes before returning to their dormitories.  Our curfew bore down on us, as it always did.  In my dormitory, my bedroom window overlooked a graveyard of tilting, smooth-stoned graves.  Gwendolyn Brooks, who must have been in her late seventies when I saw her read, would die in 2000, at the age of 83.  My classmates and I were teenagers.  We believed we would never grow old and would never die.

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The First Time: Orgera on Kunitz

Today’s guest, Alexis Orgera, is the author of How Like Foreign Objects (H_ngm_n BKS, 2010).  She has poems forthcoming in the Spring/Summer issue of Memorious.

My first poetry reading: Stanley Kunitz, 1996

It always boils down to memory. I heard a scientist on TV explain that our brains can’t actually distinguish between what they’ve imagined and what is real. Those pictures in our minds require the circumstances surrounding them to decipher truth. The time I stuck my pinky finger in a manual pencil sharpener and sharpened is imagined, but I remember it as though it were a real event. I was a child. I was naked. The bath was running. I only know it wasn’t real because I’m told it wasn’t real; there’s no scar to prove it; there was no pencil sharpener in my parents’ bathroom on Elm Street.

I remember my first real poetry reading (as opposed to the ones I participated in as a high school lit mag geek) only because I know my Aunt Aly took me there. I remember the gesture. I can see us on a picnic blanket at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, but I only remember this after doing some research. Stanley Kunitz read in Farmington, Connecticut, at the Hill-Stead Museum in the summer of 1996.

I was nineteen. It was the year of the shaved head. In this memory, I’ve given myself a black and orange, sleeveless flowered dress and black combat boots; this is an outfit I wore in college; there’s proof in a real photograph of me with a friend, but there’s no proof I wore it this day.

I remember watching an old man teeter to the outdoor podium. Was he always old? I remember many other people on picnic blankets. Our blanket, I imagine, was one of those hospital issue blankets that Aunt Aly brought home from one of her nursing gigs.

Memory tells me it was a bright, sunny day, but it may have been early evening.

Memory takes me to the basement of my house, where Aunt Aly lived for a time, when I was two or three or four. She lived in half-light amidst boxes of records—I remember Carol King and the Sesame Street In Harmony album—and nursing books with the pictures of fetuses I doted on. In part of the basement, I remember a make-up mirror like the ones you see in a movie star’s dressing room, where Aunt Aly would brush my hair and make me up like a putana, though it sounded like boo-tawn when she said it.

Aunt Aly who always made me laugh, who reminded me of her mother.

My first reading sits in that memory bank, affixed to the flowers of a garden I can’t quite picture in real life. I picture a terraced plantscape, but I’m not sure that’s right. I don’t know what Kunitz read, though I think his voice was the voice of an old man. I think I could feel the vibrations of age. I was likely wanting to be drown in his poems, because he was a “real” poet, that mysterious beached whale I wanted so desperately to be.

But I was also rebelling against my past. A man behind a podium reminded me of two-or-three hour church services, still does if I’m not careful with my muscle memory. Reminded me that in the world of the Church, I would never be allowed behind that podium, that I’d never seen a woman behind any podium at any church service I’d ever attended. I was learning the art of refusing, and that meant that I wouldn’t read Mister Kunitz again until graduate school. Instead I’d focus on rebellion, writing my undergraduate thesis about Nikki Giovanni, who could preach.

I was grateful to Aunt Aly for caring about my dreams. Or maybe I’m only grateful now, fifteen years later.

Today, I can sit at my desk typing and hope that Kunitz read “The Wellfleet Whale,” with its whale sounds and whale language and incarnate energy of dimly remember worlds, “where flying reptiles / lumbered over the steaming marshes / and trumpeting thunder lizards / wallowed in the reeds.” An imagined-real world.

And in those last lines, an elegy for the beached whale: “Master of the whale-roads, / let the white wings of the gulls / spread out their cover. / You have become like us, / disgraced and mortal,” the imagined memory, the memory outside of oneself, looking into all selves at once. In the eyes of a dying whale, Kunitz saw our common condition.

I wonder if I would have even heard those words back then, disgraced and mortal as I was, too, but without understanding, embarrassed of my lineage, my oceanic belief system, myself. I couldn’t imagine being the one on that podium any more than I could imagine being allowed to speak at church. I imagine my first poetry reading the way I envision my own birth—it’s something I feel happened, something real and not real, a glint on the horizon.

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The First Time: Derek Mong on Merwin

Today’s guest for The First Time column, in which poets talk about the first poetry reading they attended, is Derek Mong, author of Other Romes (Saturnalia 2011).

FIRSTS: W.S. Merwin

Jane Scott, the longtime rock critic for The Cleveland Plain Dealer, used to say her career began with the greatest interview of her life.  The year was 1966, the Beatles were playing Municipal Stadium, and Scott had managed to secure an exclusive with Paul McCartney.  He was “charming as predicted,” she’d later write, though he warned that “the band would have to start singing hymns” if the censorship got any worse.

When Scott died last July at the age of 92, I thought of this story, and of the one time I heard her tell it in person.  I was 17, working as a cartoonist for the teen section of The Plain Dealer, and—though I hardly knew it yet—less than a year away from a quasi-Beatles moment of my own.  I was about to meet W.S. Merwin at a small college in Ohio.

Such visits occur, year in and year out, at schools all over the country.  Posters dot departmental tack boards; emails circulate with scans of anthologized poems.  I have come to think of them like off-season exhibition games; a poet flies in, buoyed by the crisp sheets of a summer’s writings, landing gently at various lecterns between August and Christmas, January and June.  Their real work, we all acknowledge, happens in silence (or secret) somewhere else.  When you live near a college or independent bookstore—as I have done much of my life—you’ve the pleasure to freely sample whoever cycles through.

This pleasure, though, is a learned thing, and when Merwin arrived at Denison University I focused on everything but the poems themselves.  This was my first year in college, and I had little sense of poetic appreciation, let alone any of Jane Scott’s plucky aplomb.  I remember Merwin’s white hair and immaculate suntan.  I recall how he referred me to a famous Yeats poem—“Easter, 1916,” or maybe “Leda and the Swan”—in response to a question I cannot now recall.  He wanted, at one point during a talk, to make clear that he had taught, if only for a semester or two, at a school in New York.  He said he now lived in Hawai’i.  This was a fact that we all seemed to envy.

There are times when we find ourselves idolizing someone we meet briefly, know little of, and do not—at first meeting—earmark for emulation or praise.  Such heroes will surprise us, years later, in an anthology or journal, their poems like a flashlight cast into some forgotten cupboards, some place where a fingerprint can remain remarkably undisturbed.  Merwin has become that poet for me, though I still struggle to characterize the impression he left one autumn night at the start of the decade just passed.

What impression indeed?  My different answers to that question—raised whenever I read The Lice or encounter a Merwin poem in The New Yorker—have all been predictable and unsatisfactory.  For some time I attributed the delayed potency of that night to the novelty of the occasion itself.  Here was a grown man reading to us from a short stack of slim books.  That was certainly new.  Or perhaps I’d just absorbed that “great poet” aura, emanating from the stage like a soft-focus glow?  I’m thinking here of a sentiment captured by Mark Strand in “The Great Poet Returns”:

When the light poured down through a hole in the clouds,

We knew the great poet was going to show. And he did.

A limousine with all white tires and stained-glass windows

Dropped him off. And then, with a clear and soundless fluency,

He strode into the hall. There was a hush. His wings were big.    (lines 1-5)    

This rendering made sense for a while, and helped to explain—as well as deflate—the plaudits poured onto Merwin by the faculty.  He was the greatest American poet living, I was told, and thus a man who commanded the admiration of those I had just begun to admire.  A little of Strand’s irony went a long way toward shrinking the stars in my eyes.

And yet the memory of Merwin’s reading lingers, sustained by something more than novelty or greatness or the strength even of his language.  I’ve tried many times to remember the poems he read, but have never succeeded.  The persistence then comes from something else, and it took fatherhood to make this apparent, and more than a few nights of holding my son who will want—from time to time—nothing more than to be read to, quietly on the couch.  This also helped me to realize why I think poetry readings matter at all.

My thought then is this: to read to others, sitting in rapt attention, is to provide a sense of security that is faintly parental.  Likewise, to be read to is to be made secure, by the voice and the story we’ve all come to hear.  To enter these readings spaces then—be they auditoriums or bookstores, library nooks or after-hours classrooms—is to enter a bedroom years in our past.  The lighting remains low. A water glass and book are the only objects that count.  This must connect, I imagine, to an instinctual awareness we all have regarding the arts.  Literature implies leisure, and leisure is predicated on a freedom from want or harm.  It’s telling then that I used to believe Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—that famous pyramid, grounded on food and aspiring toward love—contained a place for literature read aloud.  For years I thought this was true, and even taught the idea to my writing students until a psychology major kindly informed me I was misinformed.  I must have made that tranche up.

The best poetry readings then—to my mind—honor this instinctual need, and do so while catering to more than few others: social cohesion, love of language, the acceptance of crowds.  This is why I find poets who read with an air of glib resignation or flip satisfaction so unappealing.  Likewise the scholar who thinks readings are little more than group hugs with free cheese and wine.  The former abdicates one of the poet’s oldest role: to accompany the campfire.  The latter, finding little in a reading to feed his peer-reviewers, dismisses the occasion as trivial.  Both misconstrue the occasion completely.  Good poetry readings make children of us all.

I have often wondered when exactly Jane Scott realized that her McCartney interview wouldn’t be topped.  At some point the anecdote surely settled, grew roots, and started to bear fruit—a story to pass on to the fledgling reporter, an opener at banquets and for rare occasion that interviewers turned mics in her direction.  I never thought to write her and simply ask.  For me, Merwin became Merwin only years later when, playing with my son, I thought to pull a book down from the shelf and read to him while he played with his trucks.  I do this from time to time, knowing that he will intermittently listen, occasionally look up.  The poem I read came from The Lice:

If I could learn the word for yes it could teach me questions

I would see that it was itself every time and I would

Remember to say take it up like a hand

And go with it this is at last


The child that will lead you (from “The Child”)

I like to imagine that Merwin read this poem that autumn night in Ohio.  It seems unlikely, given the dates, but with no memory of the actual reading I can never be sure.  I suppose it doesn’t really matter much.  I have been lead back to that reading by my own son, who takes my own voice—or so I imagine—as a pleasing reminder that I’m there.  This is the first of many doors his little hand will unlock.

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The First Time: Anna Ross on Galway Kinnell & Her First Time at the Podium

Today’s guest for our new The First Time column is contributor Anna Ross,  who talks about her first poetry reading, which, like in the case of our last guest, was her own. Anna Ross is the author of the chapbook Hawk Weather, winner of the 2008 New Women’s Voices contest by Finishing Line Press.

First Reading (an Impression)

            I’d been on a stage before–many times, in fact.  I was one of those Suzuki kids with the miniature violin who learned to face front and smile from age 5 onward.  And I knew how to use a mic too—this due to the music program at my high school, where we put on a yearly jazz variety program involving more lycra and make-up than I care to admit.  So this would be no big deal.  Just up the 3 steps and walk quickly–but not too quickly–across to the center–back straight, don’t pull at your clothes.  Adjust the podium mic while avoiding breathing into it, and don’t ask if everyone can hear you–they heard the last person, didn’t they?  Not a big deal at all–just some contest that I’d entered principally to convince my mother that I wasn’t completely blowing off the last semester of my senior year of high school.  It was the first year they’d run this contest, and it hadn’t yet gained much notice, which was probably why I was one of the 4 or 5 students selected.  Our prize was to read our work as part of Young Poets Night in the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival on the grounds of the Hill-stead Museum in Farmington, CT.

Memory is mutable.  Now that I’m a mother myself, I spend quite a bit of my time wondering what will stick with my kids–the perfectly (or imperfectly) executed birthday cakes; the shiny, foil-wrapped piece of candy from the piñata snatched out from under their nose by another child; the gorgeous final day at the park before school started up (could the sky really have been that clear, with just a slight breeze to break the heat?), when, for once, no one was it or out and everyone shared their snacks?  I once inadvertently disappointed my own mother by admitting to her that what I principally remembered about being read my bedtime stories as a child was my father falling asleep midway through.  (He was like a wind-up toy gradually losing power: his voice slowing to a whisper, the spaces between the words growing longer and longer until we nudged him–“Daa-ad!”–and he’d jerk awake for the last few pages.)  “But I tried to put so much expression into my voice when I read to you,” my mom said, crushed.  “I’d even make up the tunes if there were songs in the story.”

So what do I remember about my own first reading?  I remember that Galway Kinnell was recruited, and graciously agreed, to have lunch with us winners a week or so before the event to give us tips on reading in front of an audience.  (Galway Kinnell!  Why was my 17-year-old self not more impressed?  Why didn’t she look up from her final semester of high school life long enough to realize her luck and maybe formulate a question or two or make a remark that proved she wasn’t just a slightly animated block of wood sitting there chewing on her sandwich across the table from Galway Kinnell?!  Another aspect of memory is that it often breeds regret.)  He wisely recommended that we type clean copies of our poems to read from–something I probably wouldn’t have thought to do–and self-deprecatingly remarked that he often printed things in large-point font and double-spaced them just to make things as easy for himself as possible.  I wouldn’t need to go that far, I remember thinking to myself.

My fingers twitched as I mounted the stairs that lovely summer evening (just a hint of breeze to break the heat), but I managed to resist tugging at my skirt as I walked across the stage to the podium and turned to face the crowd arrayed on the lawn of the museum.  “Um, can everyone hear me?” (Dammit!!).  I looked down at my first poem, the page suddenly miles away and its text nearly indecipherable (touché, Kinnell).  Not much else remains for me of the evening.  One of the poems I read was about picking strawberries.  One of the other poets used the image a of rearview mirror in a poem and got a big laugh from the audience–to this day, I aspire, with mainly disappointing results, to insert humor into my work.  But if the concrete elements of the reading have (mercifully) faded, the emotions they engendered have not: against all expectations, this most certainly was a big deal.  This was not the “Twinkle, twinkle” variations of endless Suzuki recitals or the suburban jazz stylings of high school chorus (with deep apologies to Nat King Cole).  This was me, floating out through the speakers to hang in the air above all of those silent listening faces, the gulf between each word and line almost insurmountable, the muscles in my calves clenching and unclenching in their quest not to let my legs buckle, the moment (was it a year, a decade?) of quiet after I’d finished reading and before the audience began to applaud.

Poetry had always been a given to me–something I just did while other kids drew or painted, learned to cook, perfected skateboard tricks, played soccer, joined the school paper or yearbook club, memorized the lyrics to their favorite songs (not that I didn’t do some of those things too).  It would be hyperbolic and wildly oversimplifying things to say that poetry became a vocation that evening at the Hill-stead Museum–it was years before I dared to answer that I was a poet when someone asked me what I did.  But that reading did teach me something of the abject terror and (one hopes) equivalent bravery of being an artist, of allowing something of oneself to move outward and away from the comfort and protection of the interior and into the evening of other people, who will accept it, ignore it, love, scorn, remember, or forget it.

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The First Time: Ishion Hutchinson

Welcome to our new column, The First Time, in which we ask poets to talk about the first poetry reading they attended.  Ishion Hutchinson, the author of Far District, which won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, starts off our series with his first reading, which took place in his hometown of Port Antonio, Jamaica.

First Reading

I was in the sixth form at Titchfield High School when I had my first public reading. It happened one evening at the Port Antonio Public Library, a two-room concrete building near the market by the harbour. There were two other poets, a Rastafarian woman, fiftyish, who had lived many years in Canada where she had published some chapbooks (it was in her presence that I first heard the word ‘chapbook’; in fact, she was the first published writer I had ever met). The second reader was a man, a primary school teacher I believe, also fiftyish, but he had that look of someone simultaneously older and younger. He had two hardcover notebooks the length and girth of those you find only in courthouses. He balanced them on his lap when seated; they were at his chest when he stood, and at the podium he alternated shifting each from under his armpits. I don’t remember why I was the last to read; however that came about, it was a very bad idea. I was wearing my school uniform of white shirt, purple tie—one of the few occasions I bothered to noose myself—and khaki pants. The Rastafarian woman read first in what I remembered to be a tone of half chanting and half muttering. Her locks rivered down both shoulders, she rocked her body as she read from one of her chapbooks, pushed out from in front of her like something menacing. Strange thing was she didn’t return to her seat (my place was between the two) after she read but left through a side door, all eyes on her. I have never seen her again. The man read second, very rapid and dramatic, poems with beginnings, middles and ends, narratives filled with slapstick characters set in local situations the room could easily identify. He was starring; the audience gave loud applause even before he could finish a poem. I sat there watching him, realizing there was no way I could follow that. He came back to his seat, significantly changed, younger looking, clutching his tomes. I went up to the podium and took a deep breath to settle my nerves and my knees; I closed my eyes and recited in utter darkness to the room. Not for a moment of the roughly ten minutes I stood there did I know what was happening in front of me as I belted out things like, ‘Elysian field,’ ‘nirvana,’ ‘ménage à trios’—all of what I thought then to be the delicious and correct language of poetry. Well, I opened my eyes to silence, everybody statue-faced under the three or four aluminum ceiling fans. Why were they so quiet? Even as I sat back down, the right chair now abysmally empty, they were still silent. My friend who had come along to support me told me they were not quiet but reverent. No doubt, ten years later, if I were ask him the same question, he would tell me the same lie.

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