Infection in the Sentence: A Festival of Poetry
Poetry straight from the tongue trumps that on the page, and this week at Duke, a festival puts poets in a series of workshops to do just that. Or perhaps we should borrow the metaphor of the conference's eye-catching, Emily Dickinson-derived title, "Infection in the Sentence: A Festival of Poetry," and say that the conference will help inoculate poets from producing words "dropped careless on a Page," as the belle of Amherst put it.
Festival organizer Fred Moten, an associate professor in Duke's English department, said Dickinson's verse ("Infection in the sentence breeds/ We may inhale Despair/ At distances of Centuries/ From the Malaria") frame the festival because "they help us maintain some sense of the strangeness and beauty of poetry, the danger it can present to already given norms, standards and structures." He said organizers were interested in "poets who we feel deepen and extend the challenge Dickinson offers to language when it is simply used as an instrument for conducting business as usual."
And the participants represent an ambitious range of 20th-century poetry. In a startlingly strong program, the Department of English engages a stellar lineup of poets in conversations, and with readings of their own work. This group stretches through 20th-century poetry, from African diaspora to free jazz, slams to the experimental scene.
The festival starts off regally Thursday night with two major figures: Kamau Brathwaite and Cecil Taylor. The event's curator, Renee Gladman, is a great contemporary experimental writer, and Moten says of her, "No one has done more than her in the last decade to take the American sentence in a new direction."
Brathwaite looms over Caribbean literature like an adoring caretaker; since the 1950s he has explored the African experience there, both in his own literary work and in scholarly publications. Without Brathwaite, the school of thought and understanding around the Caribbean, its history and culture during the slave trade, for instance, would be far less informed.
Taylor needs no introduction to jazzheads, but it's not as widely known he's incorporated poetry, or performed it in his own sound poetics, for a large chunk of his career. As a pianist, he defined his own game, and many others learned from his striving into new territory, gaining freedom from the chords that bound the old standards. In Taylor's poetics over the years, he incorporated tympani or bells and percussion, or simply included his own wordplay and testing of its sounds within his piano performances. (Taylor will be here as a poet, not a musician.)
Throughout the festival, performance melds with discussion, with an interactive component also in place. Moten says "each of these sessions will be introduced by a set of curators, all of whom are exceptional poets and scholars in their own right." After opening remarks, the poets will read their work. Finally, there is a conversation between the poets moderated by the curator, and a question-and-answer session.
Postmodern poet Myung Mi Kim, who often plays with a poem's structure, appears with Cecilia Vicuña, a Chilean artist well known for her sculpture as well as her poetry; this is curated by Brent Edwards. Susan Howe, often grouped with the Language school of poets such as Charles Olsen, appears with Eileen Myles, who banged around in the East Village scene, reading at CBGB's while punk raged (The New York Times called her a "cult figure to a generation of post-punk females forming their own literary avant garde"). This event is curated by Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Christian Bök, meanwhile, emerged in literary circles in the last two decades with his experimental work; he appears with Tracie Morris, a veteran of Brooklyn's Nuyorican poetry slam scene; this is curated by Jed Rasula.
On Friday, workshops rule the day, with poets providing exercises and constructive interaction. Moten said this is another component of the festival. "We also wanted to create some new ways of connecting Duke's English department to the vital and energetic community of poets now at work in the Triangle," says Moten. "We felt it would be a great way to announce our department's commitment to the poetic life of our community." Chris Vitiello and kate pringle set up a project with sketching, photography and writing; Tessa Joseph and Ken Rumble dip into the digital arena with an examination of poetry and the self; and Brian Howe digs into digital play in editing and the remix in poetry. (Howe and pringle also served as judges for the Indy poetry contest.)
With this quick barrage of great poets in such an intimate environment, this festival opens the doors of poetry wide. And as new schools of thought in poetry continue to emerge, one thing remains unchanged: Getting up close and personal with the words—and those who deliver them—always wins.