The spirit of poetry as a community project left its mark last night on the wall of MANA Contemporary in bulging, denim-blue letters spelling out the tag “Miss you Reefa.” The tag lingered from the previous night of poetry showcasing, during Aja Monet’s piece “71st and Collins,” and alludes to the young Miami graffiti artist, Israel “Reefa” Hernandez, and his tragic death. Tonight, on the final night of Poetry Press Week, the writing on the wall and the sound loop of Reefa’s sister reading the lines “he drew flowers where they could not grow,” served as a prelude for the performances to come.
Five more artists--Laurel Nakanishi, Gregg Shapiro, Yaddyra Peralta, Denise Duhamel, and MJ Fievre--were all local poets. Each poet presented their poetry using their own touch to follow the event’s rules--the most important rule being that they were not allowed to participate in the performance of their own work. After that, anything goes. The performances ranged from traditional readings to mini theatrical productions.
Laurel Nakanishi’s poems engaged the community by using evocative footage capturing dancers from New World School of the Arts. For me, the dancing footage intensified the feeling of constant movement and turns from the exterior and interior. You get a sense of this in “ Mar y Pasaje y Cielo Estrellado”
When a curandero invites us to his house
And presses sweet tea upon us
And later, a bouquet of flaming herbs
Which we must put out with our hands,
It is a metaphor
And a test. The flames are real, the smoke acrid and we are purified,
the fire evaporating
Despite our fear.
We walk up to the doors and shout: “good!”
But what we mean is: Are you here? Are you here?
I find you in the rocking chair, reading.
“There are all the words in the world
And breath enough for them.”
But what did he mean with that fire?
Gregg Shapiro had a minimalist performance, using only a single reader, Alan Kennedy, and a single prop, a stenograph pad. However, this did not hinder the audience from feeling instantly connected, due to the humor and the intimacy of his poetry. For example, in “ Oh this Was a Long Time Ago, When I was Vampire” the speaker of the poem is looking at an old picture of himself, reminiscing and introspecting with fresh honesty. The audience released a good chuckle at the lines:
Who could that be then with my...wide eyes and saucer pupils,
trademark nose-ring, wooden rosary bead necklace, vintage vest and only one chin?
The performances of Yaddrya Peralta’s poems involved only members of her family. My favorite footage played during “Gilded.” One the right side of the wall, we see Peralta’s poem
a crack of thunder a fiery wind
The world is a piece of fruit falling
In the hot water a slack jawed grouper slides
As if eternity is a thing.
On the left side of the wall is a picture of her young niece looking the part of a child conquistadora, while folkloric music plays in the background. In her armor, she looks strong and feminine, swinging her pink sneakers, looking out from underneath her dark sidebangs and holding a wooden sword.
The sequence that was especially touching during the performance was when the last lines from the poem “Conquering Seed,” which says“ I cannot speak to you” and then slid into the next poem, “ Lempira” where Peralta’s mom, vocalized the language barrier tensions by reading the poem in Spanish, while the screen projected the poem in English. The audience appreciated the intimate and family feel, bravoing very loudly when it came for Peralta’s turn to take a stand.
Like Shapiro’s poems, Denise Duhamel’s poetry also eschewed a multimedia performace for a more traditional reading.. In her“ Rated R” poems, the visual of a static and colossal black “R” popping up from a plain white background was the only visual accompaniment we needed to feel like we were exposing and discussing problems that are commonly brushed under the rug.
In“Restricted for Bloody Horror” she connects male suffering to a deep maternal wound. When a son dies, isn’t a mother’s loss even deeper?
Restricted for Bloody Horror
. . .the precious blood of Christ and every soldier who is torn open, spilling human blood. O holy wars and domestic abuse. I’m doing this for you, says Jesus, says the president who says the soldier. Paternal blood, fathers and sons. Maternal blood and menstruation, childbirth and its gone.
Denise’s signature humor and playfulness comes out in these poems, too. Shapiro, who reads like a thespian, used his voice to deliver this one line restriction with subtle sass.
Restricted for Sexually Oriented Nudity
As HG Wells wrote, “Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo.”
M.J. Fievre’s poem, full of drama and tension, naturally translated into a theatrical performance with Chasity Hart as “Paloma”, Guy-Marcel Lilavois as “Jose Armando”, and Charity Hannah Grace as “Shadow.” From “Hialeah”:
Silence swallows the house and I’m suspended in the dark warmth of its throat.
The good woman at home thinks we’re good together, thinks we’re happy, she doesn’t know me, doesn’t know what I’m capable of.
As the night moves its limbs through the land, you send me the address of a hotel in Hialeah. You send me the room number. You send me a time.
I hold onto you in that hotel room, your body burning like a coal against my thighs.
Don’t think the tension can be cranked up anymore? How about ending with a tall and striking female in shackles at the mic?
All five performers demonstrated how the community’s influence can expand the definition and presentation of a poem. Major Jackson, editor of the Harvard Review, was invited by O,Miami. When asked about how he felt about the approach of Poetry Press Week, he said he “firmly believes poems should work on the page because most people experience poetry in a journal or book. But, it’s a really exciting dynamic to have the language receive this kind of interdisciplinary treatment since it allows you to appreciate aspects of their work in a different context.”
About the editing process, Major Jackson says, “ last night I was thinking [the][poets] have a difficult job. But then I was thinking editors at this event also have a difficult job. We are used to reading submissions in a slush pile; we have a particular way of sifting through the work, so it’s a different experience to select work like this. It’s far more entertaining. Far more pleasurable and pleasing. In fact, I wish the slush pile was as entertaining as this evening and last night.”
After being asked what poets caught his attention, he said he “wasn’t going to name names...it’s between me, them, and their momma.”
Farah Diba is a writer living in Miami, Fl. She will be contributing blog posts for O, Miami Poetry Festival 2016.