Saturday, March 5, 2011

A. Van Jordan: A Poetry Reading

47ยบ ~ dreary day, cloud cover thick upon the sky ~ heavy rain, thunder, & lightning during the night ~ the murky underside of spring

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I had the great good fortune to attend A. Van Jordan's poetry reading at Hendrix College on Thursday evening (3/3/11). I have to confess, that I love attending readings at Hendrix when they are held in the Reves Recital Hall.  The space has the feeling of a church and an intimate auditorium all at once.  It's perfect for poetry.  (I've included two photos I clicked on my iPhone, which don't do Jordan or the space any justice.)



Van Jordan is the author of three books: Rise, M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, and Quantum Lyrics.  While I haven't had time to read any of these books as a whole, I want to give you all a glimpse of Thursday night's performance and hope to provide mini-reviews at a later date for the books themselves.

Jordan read several poems from M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, which tells the story of the life of MacNolia Cox, the first African American to make it to the final round of the national spelling bee competition.  This happened in 1936.  The title of the book becomes clear, then, as a typographic nod to verbal spelling competitions.  Yet, the book does not focus solely on 1936.  Instead, it tells the life story of MacNolia Cox in reverse order, from Z to A.  Sadly, while this young girl once dreamed of becoming a doctor, as an adult she worked as a domestic in the house of a doctor, and as Jordan points out, the spelling bee turns out to have been the high point in her accomplishments.  Of course, much of this has to do with race and gender to some extent.

In fact, my favorite poem of the night was "N-e-m-e-s-i-s Blues."  Jordan gave the audience a little intro to the poem to let us know that the word that eventually caused MacNolia cox to be disqualified in that final round was "nemesis."  Apparently, there is a set list of approved words that can be used in the bee, and MacNolia was nailing all of those; however, there was a clause in the rules that allowed the judges it throw in a word if it had "come into common usage that year."  Prior to 1936, the word "nemesis" was always considered the proper noun for the Greek goddess of revenge.  The poem is in blues form.  Here is the opening:

I'd rather have no name, no name for my man to call
Say I'd rather lose my name, no name to call
Than to use my name to make a poor girl crawl

They gon' and used my name, cruel as they can be
They up and broke my good name, cruel as they can be
Done set fire to my name and blown the smoke back at me

The rest of the poem is just as powerful.  Jordan often uses set form or nonce forms in his work.  In this case, choosing the blues seems completely perfect to me as a comment on the weight of Western ideology and the racial oppression of the time.  There is also the twist of taking this traditionally white goddess and giving her the voice of an African-American blues woman. 

Jordan also read poems from Quantum Lyrics, which combine his curiosity about physics with the emotional turmoil of his father's death.  These are poems of scientists (Einstein and Feynman, for example) as well as comic book heroes (The Flash and Green Lantern to name a few).  Jordan drew a good laugh from the audience when he pointed out that he only writes about DC comic book heroes, not Marvel. He also commented on how his fascination with physics was heightened when he realized that the physics in the comic books was being used correctly.  I find it fascinating how Jordan so deftly weaves physics, comics, R&B, jazz, & having to confront death.

Of these poems, my favorite of the night was "Richard P. Feynman Lecture: Intro to Symmetry," which begins this way:

Love begins in the streets with vibration and ends behind closed
doors in jealousy.  Creation and destruction.  What do we pray
for but the equation that helps us make sense of what happens
in our daily lives?  

Finally, Jordan closed by reading from a new series of poems dealing with silent film, in particular, with the films of Oscar Micheaux, who is seen as the first African-American filmmaker and whose films sought to right the racial wrongs brought on by other films, such as The Birth of a Nation.

Here I have no lines to provide because I was blown away just in listening and by the fact that the Micheaux poems are apparently written in a double sonnet crown.  Uhm...holy formal high wire, Batman!


After the reading, Jordan answered questions from the crowd.  One of the answers I noted down had to do with the drafting and revision process.  I really liked how Jordan framed this.  He said that he tells his students to let the first draft be purely emotional.  To just get it all out there on the page.  And then, each subsequent revision gets more intellectualized (I'm not sure that's the exact word he used), farther from the emotion and closer to the craft.  Also, he revises in waves.  He might read a group of drafts just for the line breaks.  Then, he will move on and read for nouns and verbs and see where he can "punch those up."  It seemed a careful and precise approach to revision that makes a lot of sense if all of the emotion has been tossed onto the page from the get go. 

I also liked what he said about choosing poetry projects that often allow him to write persona poems.  Jordan stated that he is an incredibly private person and that audiences tend to leap to conclusions about the "I" in the poem.  He wants to distant that I, while still telling some truth about his world.  Nice.

All in all, it was a wonderful evening for recharging my poetry batteries and I'm thankful to Hope Coulter, my friend and an instructor at Hendrix, someone who herself writes both prose and poetry beautifully, for inviting Van Jordan to Arkansas.

I am once again in the position of staring at a stack of books I'm super excited to read at exactly the busiest time of the year.  Summer, summer, summer, come soon!

7 comments:

Kathleen said...

Sounds like a great reading, and I appreciate these revision practices!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Yeah, it's always an extra delight to come away not only having heard great work but with a few practical tips as well. :)

Hope Coulter said...

Thanks for coming, Sandy, and for highlighting the evening so beautifully--and yes, accurately. I'd be hard pressed to say what my own favorite poem of the reading was. I loved hearing "from"; it was just as interesting aloud as it is on the page. But "Rope" is also a wonderful poem...and "N-E-M-E-S-I-S Blues," as you said...how would I ever decide?

Thanks for the shout-out, too!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Oh, yes, "Rope" was fantastic as well. :)

Tawnysha Greene said...

What a great experience! Sounds like he was a wonderful speaker!

Molly said...

Oooh, I love the idea of revising in waves. Thanks for sharing.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Tawnysha & Molly, thanks for stopping by.

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