April 9 Simic

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Friday, May 11, 2007
poetry down
This is taking a long time to write. Not to type, but to compose. The truth is I've been putting it off because I hate revealing more than I intend, and Charles Simic provokes unpredictable behavior and much lurching around of my heart. He makes me tipsy, drunk, agreeable and liable to say things I'll regret. This is the trouble with poets.

So, with that caveat in place and keeping in mind that it was a month ago so I may have to augment my notes with what probably happened, let's go back in time to April 9, 2007. (::cue wavy time travel lines::) It was a dark and stormy night and the werewolves were howling in the south park blocks.

I was an hour early. The last time I went to a reading in this venue, it was to see Neil Gaiman in 2005 -- the line to get in wrapped around the block and was a cheerful but motley assortment of geeks and goths, readers and rubberneckers. This time as I approached the church I was afraid I had the wrong night -- there were two trench-coated professorial types standing out front looking pleased with themselves and NO LINE. Granted, I was early, but come on!

As I was paying for my ticket, the guy in line ahead of me sounded really familiar but I couldn't place him. I took a good look, but beyond the fact that he was wearing jaunty golfing clothes (a cap, some argyle and since my notes don't confirm or deny, let's say jodhpurs) he wasn't ringing any bells that had a name on them. Since I wasn't able to instantly solve The Case of the Mystery Golfer (and I would gnaw off my own hand rather than ask "don't I know you?"), I went outside and took some pictures. Mystery Golfer crossed my path a few more times and then the penny dropped -- it was (perhaps) local poet and Wordstock dude Scott Poole! I've seen him read a couple of times at Livewire. (Scott Poole, if you vanity google and see this, I didn't mean to stare. I like your hat and your poems.)

I decided to go in and watch the place fill up, assuming that it WOULD fill up because this is Charles Simic, rockstar of my personal poetry firmament and not some guy writing tweedy poems about his birkenstocks and bike chains. I took a seat on the interior aisle in the first row of non reserved seats. My neighbors included a group of giggling women who were having a fine old time (notable quote: "I have never seen a funnier movie than The English Patient!"); in front of me, three generations of women ranging from 12 - 200; beside me, I swear to god, a garden gnome. He put his backpack on top of my purse in a flagrant act of pew aggression and we both took furtive notes like cold war spies from feuding nations.

From previous events, I knew that The Talent gets stashed in a side room right off the stage. Sure enough, shortly after the garden gnome started making eyes at the two inches of bare pew to my left, the man himself was being hustled down the aisle by his minder. He looks just like his picture.

About five minutes after Simic and entourage entered the inner secret sanctum, the oldest of the women who had been sitting in front of me emerged from the room. Maybe she's always slightly rumpled, but I like to think that she was waiting naked in the closet to prove her Love of Poetry and was ejected by Poetry Roadies. As she settled into her seat and fixed her buttons and her hair, I looked around the sanctuary to assess the crowd: there was Mystery Golfer, the lady dressed like she just left the set of Dr. Zhivago, and what I presumed to be a posse of cowboy poets from Eastern Oregon. 80% of the audience was basically the same as at the Gaiman reading -- white, pale, polar fleece (this, not coincidentally, represents 80% of portland at any given time), likes to read. Replace some (but not all) of the goths and comic book aficionados with English department academics (also wan and prone to dramatics) and you get the picture.

After being introduced herself, a woman came out to deliver the Simic introduction. She said some interesting things about Simic being "a capital T Trickster of the first order" (which set me to wondering about second tier lower-case tricksters) and was generally interesting and flattering without being obsequious, but it was delivered in what I've come to think of as Academic Cadence: measured, tidy, lacking juice. It was good, but it didn't make my heart beat any faster. Have I become such a literary thrill junkie that I don't like it if it doesn't make me sweat? I don't think so. I hope not. Maybe it was the Simic Proximity Effect.

Finally, Simic reached the podium. He was charming, I was charmed. His speaking voice is relatively unaccented, just a hint of Eastern Europe here and there, but when he reads the accent is stronger. He read from several different volumes -- I got the impression that the books were snagged off of the table in the back. He started with some prose poems from The World Doesn't End and worked his way through the years -- it was a kind of chronological trip with brief explanations and introductions. He's a very conversational reader.

One of the things I love best about his work is that he is so playful, yet never shies away from the most serious human things. There's great empathy for the weaknesses of humanity, but he's not above having a laugh at how ridiculous we all are. (he does not exclude himself from the absurdity. He's not above anything, he's right down in the muck with the rest of us.) I also love that he walks the slightly sinister, dangerous edge of language-- he's willing to Go There -- refreshing in a time when the pointy parts in much art are being filed away to be more profitable or palatable or mediocre, to somehow pour syrup over ugliness and hope for the best. He's fearless but generous. Speaking of generous, let me get back to the reading! He read from many of his books. The woman in front of me (the mother, not the groupie grandmother) was reading along with every poem from a stack of books she had sitting beside her. The man himself is 20 feet away, but she's reading from a book! I found this very eccentric, but I'm sure she had her reasons.

I know this is silly, but the high point of the whole reading for me was when he pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and started to introduce the next poem -- he said (paraphrase) that this addressed a problem that has been around since the 3rd century BC -- if you're going to be using the poem as a tool of seduction, you can't be showing up with a bunch of cliches. (!!!) He went on to read one of my favorites (My Beloved). I almost cried I was so happily surprised. He said that this was a version slightly different than the one that was published (just a few words changed), and I don't know how to describe what it meant to me. It felt like a gift. The folded paper, the slightly different words, THAT poem -- he could have stopped talking right there and I would have been satisfied, but he went on to read several more poems. sigh.

Question and Answer periods can be painful. This one was not. Even questions that could have been a little iffy, Simic turned around into something interesting without breaking a sweat. (and to my delight he deftly shut down a stupid question from one of the giggling cell-phone ringers behind me, but was not cruel.) Someone asked about the poem that took him 20-30 years to finish (That Little Something). I loved the answer! he said it was all about intuition -- knowing that what he had would lead (eventually) to something more. He just had to live the time to get it. And he did! A kid about 10 years old asked why his poems were funny and serious, to which Simic replied "because the world is." There were other interesting questions, but my handwriting was even more hieroglyphic than usual by the end. Someone asked him about poetry aspiring to blasphemy and seduction, which he thought was a good question. He said that (paraphrase) my life is all I can really talk about that matters to me. it's an expression of human (some word that starts with s or maybe g).

At least that quote fragment gets to what I think is key to my appreciation of his work -- it's an expression of human: funny, tragic, silly, serious, sexy and sublime.
7 comments on "April 9 Simic"
  1. I am unfamiliar with the writer you mention, but I must say that I will be reading him as your description of the whole evening makes a bit envious that I was not there. The only time I've been to hear a speaker at that location was to hear Al Franken. Who annoyed me completely. Actually, the crowd annoyed me with all their precious middle class white self congratulatory clapping and nodding. I know I am white but I am not THAT white, you know?

  2. I reserved "Aunt Lettuce..."Have you read it?

  3. I was so glad I went -- I almost didn't because I thought 18$ was extortion (I was having a militant poverty giant hospital bill stress phase) but then I regained my senses, realized I HAD to go and went.

    Yes, I have read Aunt Lettuce !! It's a very short illustrated collection of love poems. You should try My Noiseless Entourage, too.

    I hear you on the Al Franken crowd. I agree with a lot of what he has to say, but that much smug in one room always gets my back up.

  4. Great writing, girl! Like baby boy, I am unfamiliar with Simic's work, but after your love letter, I will definitely check him out. [Now reading second Billy Collins, some of which I will share with various family members.]
    Thanks for sharing.

  5. After writing my comment my fingers flew to the library catalog and I put holds on several Simic volumes. But how I wish for one huge or at least several volumes labeled 1, 2, 3, etc. of his work. I will keep your delights in mind and pray that I may run across them while perusing his work.
    ION, What a joy to read poetry before going to sleep; sort of clears the mental palate for dreaming, after the late night news or Jay Leno.
    Are you writing any poems?

  6. Thanks, Patty! I think you'll like him, but I think everyone should like him so maybe I'm not being very objective. The library has Selected Early Poems which is a long-ish collection.

    I like reading poems before I go to sleep (sometimes -- depends on the poet), at the beach, and ... in the tub! I think the tub is actually turning into one of my favorite poetry reading places, I'm not sure why. maybe because it's easy to set the book down and just think about what I've read because it's not like I am going to get up and do some laundry or write a letter or something else. And lord no, on the writing poetry. I'm no poet, that's for sure.

    Are you writing any?

  7. The next best thing to being there. Thank you!


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