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Poems in pockets, Hass on Whitman & Simic's "Confessions of a Poet Laureate"

As April and National Poetry Month draw to a close, there are no shortage of eleventh-hour efforts to showcase American poetry in public events and media coverage. Some of them are more noteworthy than others.

While we realize that the late Mae West would have a risque rejoinder ready, The Academy of American Poets designated Thursday (April 29) as Poem In Your Pocket Day.  Hundreds of literary and arts organizations around the around the country participated in a project to circulate pocket-sized samples of favorite poems in public spaces and other places where it is not usually found, like (too many) schools, government offices, workplaces and public transportation stations. One of the Academy's local partners in the Buffalo area this year was Buffalo State College's Rooftop Poetry Club, which undertook the "What Poem is in Your Pocket?" project on April 7, and circulated the "pockets" on campus yesterday.  

On yesterday's edition of the National Public Radio program Fresh Air, host Terry Gross interviewed former US Poet Laureate Robert Hass on the new, annotated collection Song of Myself and Other Poems by Walt Whitman he recently co-edited (with Paul Ebenkamp) and wrote the introduction to for Counterpoint Books.  "When I began reading [Whitman], without a sense of how terrific the best of the poems were, I thought he was kind of a gasbag," Hass admits to Gross, when prompted by her quoting Emerson's assessment of Leaves of Grass ("I thought he was going to write the great poems of America and he wrote the catalog...")  You can stream the interview, read a transcript of it and even an excerpt of Hass's introduction to the volume at the program's website.

Speaking of former poet laureates, Charles Simic reflects back on his 2007-2008 term as "Poet Laureate Consultant to the Librarian of the United States Congress" (the official job title) in "Confessions of a Poet Laureate," an essay at The New York Review of Books website. (Yes, even the eminent NYRB now features a writers' blog.) "America may be going to hell in every other way, but fine poems continue to be written now and then," Simic writes in an essay that is as irreverent as it is encouraging. "If I were asked to sum up my experience as the poet laureate, I would say, there’s nothing more interesting or more hopeful about America than its poetry."

 --R.D. Pohl

Buffalonians in the Big Apple


The Buffalo Chips are back in town! And they have stories to tell.

The Chips -- pictured above, in a shot that ran in a recent Buffalo News Spotlight story -- were one of only six groups in the nation competing in the finals of the ICCA competition Saturday in New York City's Lincoln Center. The top prize was taken by the SoCal VoCals, from the University of Southern California. The Chips — who took fourth place, narrowly missing third —  garnered rave reviews for their spirit as well as their musicianship. The lengthy, thoughtful review of the group on the nationally respected A Cappella Blog included the observation: "Given the nature of this tournament — that it’s all college students, balancing a cappella with the rest of their lives — there’s a lot to be said for people who can take in the moment and just have fun."

Good vibes for the Chips also came out in the Mouth Off! podcasts that previewed and reported on the finals.

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Studio Arena plans return for Curtain Up!

WBFO's Joyce Kryszak reports this morning that Studio Arena Theatre, under a long-discussed partnership with neighbor Shea's Performing Arts Center, is nearing a reopening. In the WBFO report, Shea's CEO Anthony Conte said the theater hopes to present a show for September's Curtain Up! celebration, and is in talks with the former regional playhouse's stage worker's union. Conte also said he has sought cooperation and advice from local, regional and New York City-based theater companies in his plans to revive Studio Arena as a presenting house.

--Colin Dabkowski

George Saunders celebrates Mark Twain


Today, satirist and short story writer George Saunders paid a visit to the central branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library to give a short reading on the topic of Mark Twain. The event was held in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Twain's death (or the 175th anniversary of his birth, if that's how you insist on looking at it) and to mark the opening of the library's "125 Years of Huck" exhibition. Read News Arts Editor Jeff Simon's preview of the event for a little more background.

The program got under way with an interesting if somewhat lengthy history of Twain's brief stint in Buffalo, during which he lived in some storied edifices and occasionally showed up for work at the Buffalo Express when the mood struck him. The audio of that talk, delivered by local historian Thomas Reigstad and introduced by library director Bridget Quinn-Carey, is after the jump.

Saunders, with characteristic humor and grace, then read from "The United States of Huck," his introduction to a recent edition of "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." He also read key parts of Twain's masterpiece, which illustrate why, in Saunders' mind and many others, Twain's reputation as the forefather of all great American fiction is well earned. The audio is here:

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A little glimpse of a Big Night

Above: Jonathan Skinner, headliner of Just Buffalo Literary Center's Big Night celebration on Saturday night at the Western New York Book Arts Center, reads his whiskey-spattered, never-before-publicly-uttered poem "Insect-Sized Maracas." Skinner edits the magazine Ecopoetics, issues of which you can read or purchase here.

Below: Just Buffalo Literary Center Artistic Director Michael Kelleher, along with Big Night co-curator Aaron Lowinger, read an excerpt about water from James Joyce's "Ulysses" to introduce the evening's participatory second half.

--Colin Dabkowski

Two of Europe's top younger novelists at Albright-Knox Sunday

To paraphrase then-rock critic Jon Landau writing several decades ago about a young phenom named Bruce Springsteen, I think I've read the future of European fiction and its name is Sofi Oksanen.  She and acclaimed Dutch novelist Tommy Wieringa visit Buffalo Sunday afternoon  to read from their work at 3 p.m. in the auditorium of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery as part of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature and Just Buffalo Literary Center's Babel Series.  The event is free and open to the public. 
The 33-year-old Oksanen's latest novel Purge (Black Cat, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic) swept most of the literary awards in her home country of Finland as well as the Nordic Council Literature Prize last fall, and even in translation, it's a riveting suspense novel, a political tract about identity and estrangement, and a novel that documents the use of  violence in the subjugation of generations of women across national and ethnic boundaries spanning 75 years of European history. 
More importantly, it's a novel that blows the lid off of rape as political tool and human trafficking as the most shameful component of the European economy: audacious enough to suggest not only that rape is metaphor for the assertion of absolutist political power, but also that every rape is a political act -- the ultimate personal desecration and erasure of dignity and personhood.  The brilliantly outspoken Oksanen is controversial in her family's adopted Finland, but no less a polarizing figure in their native Estonia and the rest of Western Europe.  Given her indictment of the brutality of nearly a half-century of Soviet rule in Estonia, she hasn't inspired many fans among nationalists in Putin's Russia either.

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Skinner brings ecopoetics to BIG NIGHT Saturday

Of all the conceptual and linguistic frameworks to emerge in early 21st century poetry, none speaks to a more pivotal constellation of human concerns than the ethos known as "ecopoetics."

What is ecopoetics? 

 That's the question we asked poet-critic Jonathan Skinner -- the founding editor of the influential journal ecopoetics -- when we spoke to him by phone earlier this week. Skinner, a former Buffalo resident who earned his Ph.D. in Poetics at the University of Buffalo in 2005, is the author of the much-praised Political Cactus Poems (Palm Press, 2005) and With Naked Foot (Little Scratch Pad Press, 2009). He teaches in the Environmental Studies Program at Bates College in Maine. 

 Skinner wrote of Buffalo's Tifft Farm Nature Preserve (“264 acres of secondary forests and wetlands reclaimed from 1.6 million cubic yards of municipal waste, since 1975, within the city limits of Buffalo") in Political Cactus Poems and his essay "Wetlands" -- a text some have suggested is a corrective to "Walden Pond" for the 21st century. OnSaturday night, he returns to the city that has become one of the focal points of ecopoetics as a sensibility as the featured guest of Just Buffalo's season-concluding "Big Night" event at the Western New York Book Arts Center, 468 Washington St. (near Mohawk). The festivities begin at 8 p.m.

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Just Buffalo announces 'Babel' reading series

V.S. Naipaul, who will visit Buffalo on Oct. 19 

There's much more to come on this in Friday's Gusto, but Just Buffalo Literary Center has announced the lineup for the 2010-11 season of its internationally focused reading series, Babel. And it's something to behold. Here's a quick rundown. See R.D. Pohl's article in Gusto for more on each author:

V.S. Naipaul: Oct. 19.

Maxine Hong Kingston: Dec. 1

Edwidge Danticat: March 25, 2011

Chris Abani: April 15, 2011

--Colin Dabkowski

Nathan Brady Crain at Spot Coffee

In Spot Coffee on Delaware Avenue this afternoon I caught a few minutes of a set by Nathan Brady Crain. Cool stuff, especially given that the dude is playing and looping several instruments and sometimes even doing three-part harmonies with himself. Check him out in this video above, crudely shot and uploaded from my iPhone.

--Colin Dabkowski

Pulitzer surprises: small presses and language poetry

Last Monday's announcement of the 2010 Pulitzer Prizes in Letters surprised some observers and touched off much speculation about how larger cultural forces are shaping the judgements of the three person juries that award what have traditionally been America's most centrist and mainstream annual literary prizes. 
As many commentators noted, the fiction winner Tinkers, a first novel by Boston area writer Paul Harding  published by Bellevue Literary Press--a small, independent press based in a tiny 6th floor office of New York City's fabled Bellevue Hospital Center that publishes "fiction and nonfiction at the nexus of the arts and the sciences, with a special focus on medicine"--represents the first Pulitzer Prize for fiction awarded to a book published by non-commercial press since John Kennedy Toole's posthumously published A Confederacy of Dunces (with its effusive introduction by Walker Percy) won for Louisiana  State University Press in 1981.
While it would not be accurate to describe Tinkers as avant-garde, post-avant, or even as "innovative fiction" in the formal sense, it is a decidedly unconventional and strangely evocative non-linear narrative account of an elderly New England iconoclast's deathbed hallucinations and reveries of his life, his memories of his father--like the son, a clock maker and jack-of-all-trades as well as something of a homespun mystic--his rootedness to the land, and ties to his family and community.
Harding, a former drummer for the Boston-based rock band Cold Water Flat turned University of Iowa Writers' Workshop MFA program graduate and (now) faculty member, reportedly circulated the novel to several of the New York City based mainstream publishing houses without success--the book was viewed as too narrow in its appeal to have any commercial potential--until Erika Goldman, the publisher of Bellevue, a specialty press with ties to New York University's School of Medicine, took an interest.  Once published, the book took on a trajectory of its own, largely fueled by positive reviews and word-of-mouth endorsements rather than concerted social networking or a traditional publicity campaign.
The selection of California-based Rae Armantrout's Versed for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry should come as no surprise, given that it had already received the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award and had been selected as a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award, but it still represents an adventurous choice by longstanding Pulitzer standards.  The book--Armantrout's tenth full length collection of poems--was published by Wesleyan University Press, making it just the third time over the past decade that a not-for-profit press received the award.

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