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The Poetry Performance Review

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Lehman Weichselbaum

For his monthly Triangle reading series at the Bowery Poetry Club, coordinator Anton Yakovlev promises a carefully picked cast of poets working in "distinctly different modes." It's a laudably clear goal, but wouldn't any reading series strive to do the same? A recent bill featured Neil Silberblatt, Ron Bremner and Dorothy Friedman-August. Their work shared a tendency toward the surreal, sometimes passing into the absurdist. Phrases like "a pot of gold burned down by maraschino heart babies," "butternut squash atonement" and "we are sick of nations and want to live in ourselves" flew from the stage. But, in inevitable fidelity to the series' declared mission, each reader did stake out ground that diverged in degrees from his or her co-stars.

When not veering to the phantasmagorical, Bremner tacked steady on a prosaic tone. Silberblatt similarly favored the plain spoken, with added helpings of wry candor. Both men delivered their verse in voices strong and inside a sober range of expressiveness. It was Friedman-August, devoting her reading to the memory of three departed friends, ruminating on 9/11 and dedicating a poem about transgenderism to John Ashbery, who stood out as most "distinctively different," a role no doubt familiar to her from most, if not all, of the cards she has shared on the poetic stage. This applies to her peculiar brand of matter-of-fact psychological exoticism on the printed page, as well as to her unique, vocal delivery, making her deadpan Brooklyn-girl speech posture into a supremely expressive solo instrument by some mouth-to-ear alchemy.

The Triangle series' biggest departure is its post-reading question-and-answer session. It's a common practice for readers of prose, usually in the nonfiction category, but seldom, if ever, called into service for poetry readings. We sanction two classes of artists from the demand to explain their work: poets and stand up comedians. Poets and comics, each in their own way, traffic in a uniquely sacred ineffability. Prose (of the non-joke variety), by its definition, summons no such protection. The printed one-on-one poet's interview is something of a partial exception, with the revelations generally confining themselves to more structural page-centered concerns and the juicier biographical detail.

This q-and-a spot got real. Silberblatt disclosed he had stage four cancer, a condition he alluded to with somewhat less graphic description in the work he had just recited. He spoke compellingly of "depression," of "joy, wonder and mysticism, all different bottles on the shelf." "I live one poem at a time," he said, "one word at a time."

After the trials of a liver transplant Bremner colored himself "lucky." Alluding to poems on war-beset Sri Lanka, he said, "I try to see the pain in other people." The implied collective point was impromptu but clear. The harder the adversity, the greater the test (and opportunity) to a poet's poetry. It's one major challenge to personal mettle specific to practitioners of the craft.

Friedman-August spoke of discovering the inert body of Gary Azon, the photographer and her companion, upon coming home. "I was talking to him," she recollected, "even though I knew he was dead."

She offered her antidotes for depression.

"I'm not a very good pill taker. I prefer the power of music. Dance with yourself and others. Good food. Sex of course."

There followed some dialogue on the merits of chocolate babka, concluding with less personally fraught discussion on the making of poetry When is the poem finished?

Bremner: "Never."

Friedman: "It depends on how you define finished. A finished poem can have many versions."

She invoked memories of how the late poet Amiri Baraka "shook the room," underscoring, for her, the supreme importance of the political poem. Silverblatt recounted his good luck at having author Frank McCourt (Angela's Ashes) for a teacher at Stuyvesant High School. For a classroom writing exercise the young Silberblatt chose his favorite romantic poet for a model. The unimpressed but helpful McCourt counseled: "Don't give me bad Blake. Give me bad Neil."