Last Thursday night, I cruised down I-40 to Hendrix College to attend Alan Michael Parker's poetry reading. It was definitely worth the short drive.
Parker began the reading by self-identifying as a 'brat,' and I knew I'd be in for a fun evening. Then, he announced that he's been writing tales and fables lately, and I sat up even straighter in my chair. While our voices are about as divergent as they can be, "The Firefighter's Tale" and "Fable for Our Anniversary" were inspiring. In particular, I was struck by the extreme fantasy at play here. In the first poem, dreams are kept in a candy dish and the firefighter picks them out one at a time. In the second poem, getting coffee from the deli is "an epic quest" and there is a magical floating goat as an anniversary gift.
Moving into his current collection, Elephants & Butterflies, we heard a trio: "Cars Poetica," "Peaches or Plums," and "UPS Next Day Air." I hope you see the humor in the titles alone. There was much chuckling in the audience, and yet, the poems were as well crafted as any I've heard or read lately. The play of sound and rhythm added to the comedy in a deft way. I loved Parker's intro to the UPS poem. He mentioned that he once had a mail carrier who was a 'slacker.' As someone who used to wait on the mail for any good news regarding a submission, I can relate, completely, to waiting on the mail.
We got one more poem before Parker moved on to his recently released novel, Whale Man. He labeled the poem "morally bad" because the speaker accidentally sees a colleague's exposed breast (through a gap in her dress) and is titillated. Parker said that he wanted to explore whether writing a less than moral speaker made him a less than moral poet. It's an interesting query. While the novel was interesting and laced with as much humor as the poems, it didn't hold my attention as much, but that is more my issue than any issue with the novel. I simply find myself losing my ability to focus on fiction these days. The plague of such submersion in poetry, perhaps?
The second half of the playlist began with two list poems, a form that Parker admonished us all not to write, having become cliche as a form itself. And so, these poems were a test for Parker, and I think he passed with flying colors. In "18 Ways to Consider a Neighbor Whose Holiday Lights Stay Up All Year," we get "3. This is how he treats his body," "6. He is spelling something into space," and "15. Like lamps lit for all those husbands lost at sea." In "22 Reasons to Return to the Store," he weaves in Greek mythology with "4. I looked for Eurydice in every aisle." The myth returned in the latter part of the poem, but I missed capturing the line.
Finally, we had "Family Math," a poem that plays on numbers, mathematics, and relationships. Then, Parker ended with the last poem from Elephants & Butterflies and the last poem from his forthcoming collection. What I loved is that he stated that he did this purely for himself because he wanted to see and hear them side by side.
In the Q&A, there was a lot of great information. Including:
~ dramatic monologues: somebody has to be listening within the poem, "elastic identity issues"
~ Parker's work is sound driven, "banging a couple of words together to make ear sparks"
~ rhyme throws the reader back up into a previous moment in the poem (doh! I almost struck myself in the forehead; this is so obvious and yet I've never heard it put this way and never thought of it myself)
~ comedy is a formal problem that requires a lot of hard work; it allows the writer to be ultra-serious without killing the reader; he's really trying to make himself laugh
~ the lived life vs. the imagined life; Parker makes up 90% of the details of the poem b/c nobody wants to read about the boring life of a straight, middle-class, middle-aged, white guy; is a passionate liar
If you like your poems witty and sprinkled through with comedy, seek out the work of Alan Michael Parker, and I doubt you'll be disappointed.