Maybe you live in some deprived spot where you’re not able to attend poetry readings (though I’m sure there’s an eccentric poet nearby, if you know where to look). Since I live in one of the artistic centers of the country—we can argue that if you want—I go to readings sometimes, and last Sunday I went to one with my friend Katherine Young.
Katherine was one of the featured readers, along with Richard Peabody, who is both a writer and the publisher of the literary magazine Gargoyle. This event took place at the Iota Club and Cafe in Arlington, Virginia, which has poetry readings on the second Sunday of the month. We got to the empty club a little early and talked some with Rick and with Miles David Moore , founder and host of the poetry series, then the four of us sat at a table near the stage.
Walking in the door of this club, I was reminded of places I used to go with a friend to hear music in Philadelphia, dark dives with a slightly chic post-apocalyptic decor. That was the nicer places. The Iota Club is like the nicer ones, even with tiny Christmas lights strung over the bottles up on shelves behind both bars. It’s not a big place, but it has two bars, so it’s for people like me who want a drink the moment they walk in the door (and they had a pretty great chocolate stout on tap).
The club is generally dark, with plain brick walls, wooden rafters overhead, and a multicolored floor, apparently from bits and pieces of God knows what remaining there. Multiple layers of linoleum? At the front was a tiny stage with large speakers, as bands also play here, and there was a backdrop of a white sheet painted with enigmatic shapes, so that all during the event I was looking at the sheet from time to time and thinking “What are those things?”
Katherine read first, and I think she read the coolest poem of the evening. She had a series of poems about Japan, and one of them was inspired by Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. The poem was from the point of view of the wife of the American officer Pinkerton, when the two of them return to Japan to take away the child he had during an affair with Butterfly. In the opera it’s tragic and musically beautiful, but Mrs. Pinkerton says little. In Katherine’s poem, she becomes a real person and we could hear her thoughts about what was happening. As I listened to the poem, I was taken back to the one time I saw the opera performed, in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Katherine also read poems with a Russian connection, as she is, in addition, a translator of Russian poetry. This is a culture and a history that she knows very well, having lived there, and she has written her own poems reflecting her time in Russia. At the reading on Sunday she read some of her translations of the poet Vladimir Kornilov, translations that have been accepted to go into an anthology of Russian poetry .
The last poem Katherine read she dedicated to the Russian feminist punk group Pussy Riot, some of the latest victims in the endless dreary Russian history of locking up people who disagree with their government. Following Soviet days, people sometimes said the oppression meant that artists had to be more creative. If so, the despicable Vladimir Putin is doing his part to revive Russian culture.
The other featured reader last Sunday was Richard Peabody, who has a new book of poetry out. One of Rick’s poems was a slightly quirky piece about being a child and going trick-or-treating, dressed as the Masque of the Red Death, inspired by the Edgar Allen Poe story. Rick didn’t feel the costume really worked at the time, but man, he gets 100 points for trying something like that.
Another of his poems that had an especially striking image for me described being at a reptile zoo, walking around holding his young daughter. At one point, an alligator came toward them and stopped, waiting. Rick realized that the alligator was expecting to be fed, but the only “food” Rick was holding was his daughter. The poem contained the line “Just a daddy holding his daughter in in his / arms in plain view of a predator”.
Following Katherine and Rick, anyone who wanted was able to sign up for an open mic, which 11 people did, including people who have published books of poetry (did I mention that we’re in an artistic center of the country?). Naturally with 11 people reading there was a wide variety, some of which I liked, some of which was, umm, not written with me as the intended audience.
By the end of the reading, the club crowd was in flux. The audience for the poetry reading was mostly older people (if I were 20 years old and writing this, I’d have just said old, without that “er” on the adjective), but by the time we left, a lot of young people had crowded into the club. It seems the poetry was being followed by a comedy act. Can I draw some metaphysical statement about life from this fact? No, of course not. But that won’t stop me. I draw the conclusion that old people seriously contemplate life, and young people laugh at it.
That’s not actually true, but I like the way it sounds as a way to end my blog entry. Since it isn’t true, though, I’ll say something that is true. They had fabulous French fries at the Iota Club and Cafe. How did they do that?