I was gliding on a silver monorail through some worn-out neighborhoods in the East Bay. It was like a monolithic form of surveillance. I was on my way to a poetry reading at UC Berkeley which occurs on the first Thursday of the month around high noon. The readings are presided over by Robert Hass, the Distinguished Professor in Poetry and Poetics, former U.S. Poet Laureate (1995-97), and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2008.
When I walked through the door of the Morrison Library he was right there, as if waiting for me. He is probably telepathic, along with his other attributes. I had never met him before, which is my fault. This is a man in his early 70’s who was at an Occupy demonstration in late 2011 and was roughed up by the police. I introduced myself and gave him a copy of Out of Our (a poetry magazine published by my wife Sarah Page and me), and asked him to to send us something — a brazen request he took in stride.
The Morrison Library is an old and comfortable reading room with chairs and sofas, and there was a good-sized crowd. Hass gave a long and gracious introduction of the poet, Cathy Park Hong, referring to her work as “furious, nervy, open to everything”. There was some mention of having her bi-lingual antennae out (she is Korean-American), and creating dystopian worlds in her writing. She may refer to Billy the Kid, Medea, or the “abject and racialized body”.
The audience was quiet and attentive while she read, with no applause until the end. This could be called academic poetry in some respects — she was reading at a university, introduced by a professor, and is an associate professor herself (at Sarah Lawrence College). In addition, there were pieces she read which just sounded like words to me, albeit in careful and grammatically correct arrangements. However, some lines and phrases started getting through to me. She mentioned a vendor who “keeps peeled apples under her armpit” and then sells them. There was a nice piece about a painter working in the “Rembrandt factory”, reproducing self-portraits by Rembrandt. Another poem featured a man who refers to “my penis flapping between my shirt tails” (which did not ring a bell), and “I’m mooning your dreams” (which did).
She also read a couple of poems using only words with the same vowel. I have written poems using only words of one syllable, but this is very limiting. Oh no, odd job of common words on top of no plot. Do not do now.
She ended with some works in progress, which I liked more than most of the other pieces. They seemed to have more force and focus, including a subtle rap-like poem which was doing some unusual things with language.
I spoke with her afterward in the company of John Panzer, a poet and Berkeley student. He was enthusiastic about her reading, which had included selections from “Engine Empire” (2012) and “Dance Dance Revolution” (2007). Her work has been generating prizes and surprises. Later I read more of her poems and was feeling ambivalent. There is a shredded coherency or continuity which throws me a little — I recognize a fine-tuned mentality in the phrases, but they seem to be a collage, a surreal collection of thought fragments which may or may not cohere, and are allegedly more poetic if they avoid a subject. This style of writing can lose an audience. Or maybe it just requires a quiet setting and a sober crowd.
Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).