Shaken and Stirred
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yale younger poets=rock stars
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Last night we went to a reading by Kentucky's three Yale Younger Poet Prize award winners at the Gaines Humanities Center's annual Bale Boone Symposium. The symposium is named in honor of former Kentucky poet laureate Joy Bale Boone -- there's an interview with her here from when she was poet laureate, going blind at the time. She died in 2002, and was by all accounts a beloved figure in Kentucky letters, though I never met her.

Kentucky's Yale Poets were all chosen within a ten year period -- Tony Crunk (1994), Davis McCombs (1999), and Maurice Manning (2001). Perhaps even stranger, they all write about Kentucky a great deal (though Manning is apparently currently picking bones with Auden and especially John (or has he familiarly calls him Jack) Milton).

The reading was excellent, except for the fact that the poor English faculty member (?) who kicked off the evening was a terrible public speaker in a way that only invokes pity -- repeating himself, thanking the thankers many times, and taking way too long to get things underway. James Baker Hall, another former Kentucky poet laureate, did the introductions of the poets, mercifully, reading from interviews with all three in Wind magazine, and calling attention to many of the luminaries in the hall -- Bobbie Ann Mason, Crystal Wilkinson (who he oddly never mentioned), Ed McClanahan, Wendell Berry, Gurney Norman, etc. Lots of writers in the audience, and a fairly sizeable turnout for a Saturday night.

The Symposium is a series of free and open events, including workshops and discussions and readings, and free food and wine. We only went to the reading and the wine. The one thing Mr. Mumbly Speaker did say I thought was interesting was that they'd spent the morning talking about the importance to poetry of "humility, respect and authenticity."

The poets read in the order they received the prize -- T. Crunk's a shaggy dog of a man, sort of old-hippy crossed with Don Johnson. He read exclusively from Living in the Resurrection, his Yale book. I'm not sure if that means he doesn't write much poetry anymore or not, though a google search shows he's written several children's books.

This was one of the poems he read:

Souvenirs
(for my father)

Through the mirror
I can see you reading
your new testament before bed,
putting it away in the dresser drawer
where you keep

the tin box of foreign coins
and the hand-tinted postcards
of Italy
you brought home from the Navy
in 1954.

We lie awake
my brother and I
listening to you on the back steps
singing
only half to yourself
a snatch of an old minerís song
that goes:

up every day
in the dawnís early light

to go down in a hole
where itís already night

to go down in a hole
where itís already night

itís already night
boys itís already night,

and through the window
I watch the fireflies
among the trees,
which,
you told us once,
were dead people lighting cigarettes.


Next up was the fabulous Davis McCombs, whose book Ultima Thule blew my head open when it came out. Ultima Thule is a series of poems about Mammoth Cave, where McCombs worked as a guide while writing them (this from someone who'd been a Stegner Fellow already); in particular these poems focus on Stephen Bishop, a slave who mapped the caves and became famous for his tours of them. (Those of you who've read Alex's book, A Scattering of Jades, will be familiar with Bishop already.)

McCombs read only a couple of poems from Ultima and then moved on to newer poems, most of which haven't been published yet. He's working on a series of poems about the culture of tobacco and said that because his mother always told him tobacco paid for his education that he feels like every word he writes is somehow sponsored by Big Tobacco. The new poems were wonderful, evocative and complex. Keep an eye out for "Ninevah" and "Lexicon."

This is one of his poems from Ultima Thule:

Visitations

There came to us, Tuesday last, a man
of most peculiar visage. The Doctor,
to whom we turned for insight, muttered
of abominations, dismissed our questions.
And yet I did not hesitate to show the Gentleman
as far in the Cave as his leisure and his pocket
would allow. For, there, to the faltering
glow of a greaselamp or candle, throng
shadows far more monstrous than he.
These I do not fear. It is the women
on the tours that give me pause, delicate,
ghost-white, how, that night, I'm told,
they wake to find themselves in unfamiliar
beds, and lost, bewildered, call my name.


And last was the hilarious dry wit, Maurice Manning. Manning read only new work, most of the poems being direct rebuttals or commentary on lines in other poems. He's a skilled reader. (In fact, only one of these poets, T. Crunk, had a little bit of the Poet Voice going on, and even he not so much.) Manning's Yale book deals with a fictionalized character called Lawrence Booth. A phrase I liked from him (or from his interview as rendered by Baker Hall -- I can't remember) was that he teaches writing as "a way of knowing deeply," going on to say that it shouldn't be about publication or fame. (In fact, this was a minor theme of the evening -- McCombs' interview included a statement that Ultima Thule received so much attention when it came out that if you weren't strong it could affect the way you looked at yourself as a writer and end up hurting the work.) One of his new poems also had a great line that went approximately like this, "Abraham Lincoln taught himself to read, and for his trouble someone shot him." He also used the word bashful, a sonorous and underused word in my opinion.

One of his poems from "Lawrence Booth's Book of Visions":

Envoy

Man who believes television
is the mouthpiece of the devil,
seeks female with similar views.

Attention all ladies who like
biscuits: man has gristmill
and two or three acres of wheat.

Are you a woman cast out from society?
Man with thirty-seven acres
and big muscles can provide refuge.

Would like to find sober woman (beer okay),
interested in pick-up trucks, old-time
Gospel music, buffalo trails.

Grown man who likes red dogs
and skipping rocks, hoping against
hope some woman likes same.


I've spent way more time on this than I intended, really just to say all three of these guys are wonderful poets and: Seek their work.

It was nice to partake in an evening where poets were like rock stars. Not in the sense of glamour, fame or frenzy, but in the best sense of rock stars -- their work makes you feel alive, makes you want to live. Even better, they make you want to think. And thinking is living.


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