poets

Patricia Spears Jones reviews A Swarm of Bees in High Court

  Tonya M. Foster’s well-built house of words, A Swarm of Bees In High Court is a rather grand one with many rooms. Belladonna has placed these poems in a handsome volume with cover art by Wangechi Mutu. Max Ernst’s painting, A Swarm of Bees in the Palace of Justice at The Menil Foundation in Houston provided a jumping off point for her consideration of shape and color, colored by myriad experiences from an erotic encounter in which the speaker reflects while her lover sleeps his satisfied sleep to bullets and basketball. Bees argue in the rooms of this artful house. They question power. They find sweetness. Change direction. Upend expectation. Find the Queen imperious to pleading or lack of sweetness. Foster’s poems be like that.

In/Somnia is for this reviewer, the most emotionally compelling section of this book. The post coital lovers make for an easy apprehension, but then Foster is not interested in easy apprehension. “Again to t/his sweat. Now sleep./But not for her—sleep.” Words are cut up, punctuation is almost too precise. The speaker’s insomnia reveals or conceals depending on where one is in the poem, anxiety, anger, vulnerability, pleasure, like picking the cuticle—gross, but it’s your own finger.

Can running her

finger, like a hiss along

t/his clavicle trip up

parenthetical

affection? Full of sleep

 

This is a poet for whom sound is an important ingredient in the poem’s architecture. Finger . . . hiss—those short vowels and intense consonants. The sleepless lover is either remaking herself in her “dramas, get chased round the block/by rabid white dogs or “She’s come to take this/as survival gospel/for sub’urban souls”. In/Somnia is a great introduction to Foster’s formal structure—like many contemporary poets she uses tercets and word play is very important. The sounds, puns, how the stanzas are arranged on the page contribute to a holistic sensibility—one self-referential, but also abstract, a kind of first person/third person face off in which the reader is kept a discrete distance. We can see the figures, make out gestures, have an understanding the tableaux, but there is much I do see, hear, can’t make out. That wakefulness after love making is the blues in its greatest mystery—what did the lovers get, and what is always missing?

Color becomes a motif throughout the book, particularly red. Red for blood, for flower, for rage, for love. And with red, she explores couplets and quatrains (lyricism’s favored stanzas):

red culled from rubia or madder root lends the hermit majesty, (the woman infamy),

red culled from sawdust of the brazilwood tree primped a pope’s robes, pimped pus(sy),

red culled from clay, from crushed cochineal, kermes, from worms dried and ground,

red culled from cinnabar mined by the enslaved, the imprisoned, not-I’s,

(In/Somniloquies)

The color Black allows for an interesting contrast: “Blackity-black girl” who hears “Voice of a woman on tv offers her sick roommate medicine.” And another “Voice of a woman on a corner: “Stick your thumb up your ass. Smell it.” Black women as healers, soothers, aspirational shills (oh Oprah) in contrast with that “Blackity—black girl” who is simply tired of the shit, oh which will be that Queen? Who hears “the hive of sound/”As if beats blind us.”

Foster narrates the external anxieties meted out in communal theater—the streets, the basketball courts of Harlem, and other urban enclaves where Blacks mingle for good and ill. The “Bullet/In” section focuses on the missiles that meet too many bodies in urban spaces such as Harlem. Again, the poet effectively uses tercets. Her diction is high court street—one thing you learn living in this city is how well versed many young people are with the courts, with police procedure because all too often they have found themselves in court. As the poet notes, “bullets can/Blot a page, train an eye to/follow and often followed are “Bodies of young men—site specific installations—streets, stoops, corners, cells.” Black bodies male and female too often are found violated in this society. The ordinariness of this violence is enraging and Foster has found a way to explore that rage, “beats blind us.”

The Belladonna Collaborative is bringing out important work by African American women poets from highly diverse backgrounds including Latasha Diggs, TWERK and R. Erica Doyle’s proxy showing poets whose use of language is breathtakingly daring. Now, Tonya M. Foster’s A Swarm of Bees in High Court is added to this vital list.

Foster’s imaginative work glories in language’s ambiguities, discords, emotions and logic—she allows that imaginative thrall to explore race and gender and political dysfunction. Foster has taken from one work of art and found correspondences in a Harlem apartment, a New Orleans childhood, early morning television commercials, a lover’s sated face, the sounds of bullets and basket balls, bees, and the colors, red, brown and black to make a powerful debut collection that will be read and re-read for years to come.

 

 

 

December 19th- Language Matters at Tribes

Happy Holidays from us and ours to you and yours!

 

One important event this month! Just one! Friday December 19th.

 

"Live From Steve's Couch" at A Gathering at the Tribes.
A Celebration of "LANGUAGE MATTERS with Bob Holman, A Film by David Grubin." This two-hour documentary will premiere on PBS (Channel 13 in New York, Sun., Jan 25 at 12:30 PM). Bob Holman will discuss endangered languages, and poetry in general, from the perspective of the oral tradition. With special guest Alhaji Papa Susso, Gambian griot, epicist/musician/poet, and keeper of the oral tradition in West Africa. Papa's poems appear in Bob's translations in Bob's newest collection, Sing This One Back to Me (Coffee House Press). Professor Steve Cannon will be on hand, to ensure that everything is on the up and up.Want to watch or be involved? you can stream it LIVE here from 6-8PM

Fall 2014 Workshops at the Poetry Project

FALL 2014 WORKSHOPS AT THE POETRY PROJECT

REGISTER ONLINE AT POETRYPROJECT.ORG

MOVEMENT AS POETRY: A WORKSHOP ON THE SOMATIC AND DIS/ABILITY – JENNIFER BARTLETT Tuesday, 7-9 pm: 10 sessions begin September 30, Abrons Art Center

Every poet has a body which they write through and with. In this workshop we will focus on how individual impairment and the somatic experience affect poetics. We will read, discuss, and write poems based on the work of Robert Duncan, Larry Eigner, Robert Grenier, Norma Cole, CA Conrad, Bernadette Mayer, and Ellen McGrath Smith. Everyone will get a free copy of Beauty is a Verb; The New Poetry of Disability.

Jennifer Bartlett is author of Derivative of the Moving Image and (a) lullaby without any music. She is co-editor of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Individual poems are forthcoming in Aufgabe and Poetry. She is the biographer of Larry Eigner.

BEST BIRTHDAY EVER! : experiments with time, or, how to have more fun being a living poet in the digital age – DIA FELIX Thursday, 7-9 pm: 10 sessions begin October 9, Abrons Art Center

Dia Felix is a writer and filmmaker who’s screened films at independent festivals (Frameline, Outfest, San Francisco Film Festival), and performed literary work a lot too (Segue Series, Radar, Dixon Place). She is the author of the novel Nochita

PERFORM! – NICOLE PEYRAFITTE Saturday, 2-4 pm: 10 sessions begin October 4, Dixon Place

Learn to trust & stretch your performance skills. Bring out your poetry with more confidence & ease. Prepare & enhance your readings. Never fear the podium again. Explore, experiment, practice & take your performative skills to new heights. Connect with your voice as the instrument it is. Through breathing techniques, voice warm-up, light stretches learn to develop & expand your creative & delivery powers.

Bring your own writing &/or poetry you like to read /perform.

Nicole Peyrafitte is a pluridisciplinary artist. Her latest project, “Bi- Valve: Vulvic Space / Vulvic Knowledge,” was published by StockportFlats. more info: www.nicolepeyrafitte.com.

Occupy Art by Angela Sloan

Occupy Art: An Evening of Poetry and Protest

By Angela Sloan

The Occupy Art Poetry event, which was held on Sunday, January 26, 2014, at The Bowery Poetry Club in New York City was a culmination of open-microphone performances, (which gave the event a sense of spontaneity) as well as scheduled readings. It was organized by Carla Cubit, whose Occupy Wall Street artwork also decorated the wall space behind the stage. There were many different performers; poetry and works of fiction were read aloud, and there were also slideshows and musical performances. The event was held from 8:30 to 10:30 pm and a small donation was taken at the door in lieu of a cover charge. The Emcee for the night’s festivities, Robert Galinsky, opened the show with a spoken-word piece of his own. His enthusiasm was extraordinary and contributed greatly to the pleasant and friendly energy in the room.  

Jeffrey Chambers Wright, who will be celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of his publication, Cover Magazine this year, read two new pieces of poetry, one of which was inspired by his passion for preserving the public gardens of New York City’s Lower East Side. Leonard Abrams, publisher of The East Village Eye newspaper read from his new piece, “One Percent Bible.” Other performances included a comic-strip slideshow accompanied by a young woman serving as narrator, multiple musicians and drumming. The mantra of the occasion, if I may borrow a quote from one of the performers of the evening, was: “You don’t have to fuck people over to survive.”

The evening ended on a hopeful note: the pervasive idea being that the occupy movement cannot be a lost cause, and its supporters cannot lose and will not be futile in their efforts, because there are millions of us who are all in the same canoe. There was a piece entitled The Phoenix, which was especially memorable because its recitation was accompanied by a lovely musical piece played out on a conch shell. Tom Weiss, who runs the newspaper and blog Up Front News, did not recite a piece of poetry, but instead spoke about  a subject that he is very passionate about, and that is the raising of awareness surrounding the unjust treatment and subsequent genocide of the people of Tibet.

Chris Flash was there to talk to the audience about his newspaper, The Shadow, which is New York City’s only underground newspaper. Their specialty, to use their own words, is “investigative journalism and in-depth reportage on important subjects that the mainstream media either under-reports, mis-reports and/or chooses to ignore.” It has been published on the Lower East Side of Manhattan since 1989, the catalyst for its birth being the distorted mainstream media coverage in the aftermath of the infamous police riot in Tompkins Square Park on the sixth and seventh days of August, 1988.

The show’s finale piece was a piano composition entitled “Occupy Love”, which was the title voted on by the audience members, and it was played very beautifully by Eric A. Dahl: it was a lovely and moving ending to an important evening of art and activism.

Patricia Spears Jones reviews STUDY by Yuko Otomo

  • Book: STUDY & Other Poems on Art
  • Author:  Yuko Otomo
  • Press: Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, NY 2013
  • 288 pages

 

Strolling Through a Life in Art—Review of  STUDY & Other Poems on Art

 by Patricia Spears Jones

Yuko Otomo has been writing and performing poetry and texts for three decades printing many in limited edition chapbooks.  Her poems offer a range of perceptions about art from her vantage as an artist, as a viewer, as a poet.  Reading the poems in STUDY is to relive the art world and its contents and discontents through those three decades. As she remarks in an epistolary poem, “A Letter to Christine”: “How visual I am!”  And yes, she is very visual.

As someone who has seen many of the same shows and/or artists she considers in these poems, I am intrigued by her approach.  Her well-trained observant artist’s eye pairs with psychological observation—deepening our understanding of image and image making.  As she notes in her introduction, “I noticed two things . . . One is the lack of poems of my “favorite” artists (e.g. Matisse; Goya; Pollock . ) & an abundance of poems on art I care less personally for.” Moreover, she sees how some work such as Louise Bourgeois invites her to enter both the poetic and critical world. As she looks at her output, she realizes that “I’ve learned one of the most vital truths: ‘liking’ & ‘disliking” have nothing to do with art.”

What her poems do is meditate on images or image-making to expand her artistic vision.  “10 Poems for “The Americans” by Robert Frank” concretizes in language the stark, erotically charged photographs that Frank is known for.  Otomo looks sideways at his images in these stanzas in “Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey”:

 

LOVE meta-morphed

into different shapes

stands still

by the (window) frames.

 

Arms of a woman

Palms of a boy

 

An afternoon breeze waves

a flag of IDEALS, DREAMS & the VOID

rectifying HAPPINESS

 

But of course, this is Frank whose images of Americans are deeply engaged in his subject’s complications and the poem ends:

 

As cheers fill the streets,

a new sense of HUNGER

nails the interior darkness down.

 

Otomo is comfortable with exploring the abstractions : ideals, dreams, the voids in artists’ work.  Also, she is fascinated by the fluidity of identity especially gender in the artists’ work:  “a man is a man, a mother, a brother” is a line from “Joseph Cornell in his Garden (Hans Namuth 1969)” and in the Cornell Box Poems, she dynamically explores androgyny.  It seems to this reader that the poems about the photographs of Cornell’s studio are more expressive than the ones on the actual Cornell boxes.  It may be that focus on image making-what did the studio look like; what were the items he would use; how did the photographer orchestrate these images?  Indeed, “Studio Details of Storage Racks (Hans Namuth 1973)” is a delicious list poem that ends: snow flakes, birds, nest, feathers which pretty captures the basis for a Cornell box!

While many of the poems are lyric or meditative, the most notable texts here are epistolary—letters to specific persons both living and dead.  These pieces offer the reader a more intensive view of Otomo’s own artistic practice-how she thinks through her work and the work of others. “A Letter to Christine (for Christine Hughes)”  is a piece de resistance.  Back to the strolling—Otomo uses that well worn New York writer’s exercise, a walk around the city—and here the stroll sparks one side of what appears to be a very long and useful conversation between two artists. But more importantly, the letter considers Otomo’s own creative inspirations: that stroll; her love of music; the issue of location (where is one when one works) and her enthusiasm for her friend’s “botanical art” which leads her to a book on wildflowers.  Much like Maureen Owen and others who use lists to illustrate a particular point—she finds the wildflowers that grow in the city: “Loosestrifes; Milkweeds; Purple Cornflowers; Asters; Blazing Stars; Vervains; Bell Flowers; Gentians; Dayflowers; Chicory; Golden Rods .   . .”  and in the next stanza she notes: “Nothing is so mesmerizing as the colors and forms of plants”.  This letter allows the reader to enter into the intimacy of artistic conversation-the ways in which one artist recognizes and encourages the work of another and simultaneously, recognizes and advances her own.  I don’t know the work of Christine Hughes, but after reading this piece, I really wanted to see what she does with her “botanical art”.

A more poignant piece is “Myself: Self Portrait (for Emma Bee Bernstein).   This elegy for the beloved young artist who took her own life in a kind of last “self-portrait” responds to the extraordinary body of work Emma Bee Bernstein made and to the issues raised by Bee Bernstein’s artistic practice.  Moreover, she interrogates that practice in light of her own well-considered self-examinations and how the younger artist made her consider the desire to see one self mirrored, reflected in control of one’s image.  “I don’t particularly/ like to face my reflected self in a cornered room with harsh/ artificial light  . . . but, for some reason,/ the situation always takes place in this kind of imagined space./Ah, how much I wish I wee a Narcissist, but I am not.” As she shies from the kinds of staged works the young artist made, she also notes: “I know that she knows me better than I know her”.

Throughout the piece she lists titles of Bee Bernstein works, which go from abstractions “Faith/fate” to nature “a Tree/Trees”.   In the second and most complicated stanza of this text, she offers the artist’s view of  boundaries—going from abstract to concrete and back again:  “I once told my dear friend that I was not curious/ about what’s behind the wall, but about the wall itself & what I/was looking for was not who/what I was, but what I was made/ of.”  Bee Bernstein’s important conversations with older women artists offered her a way into audacity.  That she left the world so early confounds and in Otomo’s delicate re-working of her ideas in this text, we see what the art world lost.

Otomo’s often works with her partner, Steve Dalachinsky and Study includes a major collaboration entitled “Arena”, based on a Joseph Beuys artwork.  It has moments of clarity, hilarity and occasional frustration—one can hear the marriage of two different, but equal voices, a true rarity (Steve Dalachinsky =sd and Yuko Otomo ==yd).

 

sd                    you listen to air through copper tube & wax

yo                    I see the heart beat of the air

a perfect loop, a perfect malice, a perfect dust

 

sd                    the wildlife on stilts is frozen by removing its innards

yo                    I am crossed with an triangle & my bones ache

to be with time is tearing me apart

 

sd                    I hang like a hand like a hangar on a hand on a nail

on a cross where I hang

 

yo                    a perfect bath tub, a perfect profile

 

 

As one can see, Otomo is in search of that perfect line, the perfect loop, the right word to say what she needs to say about Sarah Sze, Bourgeois, Caravaggio, Beuys, Cornell, Bruce Nauman, August Sander. At times, that word is not found—the poems in response to Nauman’s exhibition don’t quite work. But when she goes into depth, it can be startling.

 

In one of the last and most ambitious poems in this book, she delves even more deeply into women’s lives and art—the poem “Intra-Venus” that is in part dedicated to Hannah Wilke. I met Wilke before cancer began to destroy her almost other-worldly beauty, so I am always interested in the ways in which people approach her work, not only her early work, but also her end of life portraits that are harsh and powerful.  Otomo does not disappoint here.  In deft stanzas she catches the artist’s work, but also that decay and in her own way, the particular significance of women, women’s bodies and how they are used in art.  Here are excerpts from “Intra-Venus (for Hannah Wilke and Lona Foote)”

 

time to timelessness

you witness

your physicality

assaulted & forced

is it your eyes that we are facing?

is it your navel that we are looking at it?

is it your thighs that we are marveling at?

 

see-sawing

in a sense of metaphysics

 

******

how a raw road leads

to the bottom of the well

where all those inspirations

for life pour out

 

*******

 

see-sawing

in a sense of metaphysics

 

a river

a morning

 

a luster

a monument

a flower petal—

 

remember that

 

to be or not to be

 

in the Origin

 

the sun was a woman

 

The poem in many ways sums up Otomo’s sensibility-she seeks the eternal in art, but always is in touch with the ephemeral-art may endure, but each of us will die.  Wilke, Beuys and Bee Berstein’s art endures.

Ugly Duckling Presse has made it possible for readers to see a poet’s confidence grow as she considers art in our time.  Yuko Otomo’s  Study is a great addition to the proud New YorkSchool sensibility of connecting poetry and visual arts.  Her strolling through galleries, museums, in and out of friends’ studios and in and out of her own is a major document of the past three decades.  It was a pleasure to join her.