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Split This Rock Day 3: 5:00 Reading and Reception [Mar. 22nd, 2008|02:51 pm]
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I came back to the festival for the 5 p.m. reading, which featured Coleman Barks, Pamela Uschuk, and Belle Waring. Lucille Clifton was supposed to be there, but fell ill, so the reading began with Sarah Browning and the poets each reading one of her poems, which was a nice tribute, although not as nice as having her there in person would have been.

Coleman Barks read his Letter to President Bush. I sat there listening to him, crying over what might have been. Like him, I don't really consider this proposal foolish. I wonder how many world conflicts could have been solved just as usefully with a fully waged and committed peace. Even WWII, the great war, the justified war: What would have happened if wealthy tourists had poured into 1920s Germany, spending money freely and easing the economic woes of war reparations? What if Wilson had achieved his 14 points? It is painful that the history of war is one of hundreds of missed opportunities for peace. It is painful that imagination is not always enough. But I do believe that we do good by creating alternative visions, by speaking joy to power, because once in a while it does work, and once in a while is better than nothing.

Pamela Uschuk is an interesting person. At the poetry and policy discussion, I enjoyed her description of  the word "matriot," which she apparently coined, and her description of her father's experiences refusing to sign a loyalty oath in the McCarthy era. But I was not moved by her reading; I suspect I would like her poetry better if I met it on the page.

Belle Waring -- a former local neonatal nurse, lots of frontline experience with DC trauma --  was the least-renowned of the bunch, and I think she felt shy coming up on stage in her jeans and fleece vest, sheaf of paper in her hands (Uschuk is a glamorous tall blonde, and was wearing striking red cowboy boots, a gift from her famous poet husband). She made several self-deprecating remarks, and then opened fire, in an intense, painful, whisper, with some of the finest poetry I heard all weekend. Among others, she read The Forgery, about engaging in guerrilla medicine to save a baby's life. domystic, Rob, you would adore this lady. I bought her book, Dark Blonde (linked above), and also a Rumi collection of Barks.' (Barks is most famous not for his own poetry, but for translating Rumi. If you as an American and English-speaker know Rumi's poetry, it is because of him.)

A magnificent reading. I had wondered about where to go for dinner in between the 5 and 8 p.m. readings -- I found myself alone again -- but Sarah Browning solved my problem. Here is a great example of what kind of a conference this was, and what kind of a conference organizer she was: She got up at the five o'clock reading and announced that they had ordered hors d'oeuvres for the volunteers and the poets, but that the previous night they had way too many leftovers. So, she announced, when the treats arrived this evening, perhaps everyone in the audience would like to join the poets and volunteers in the cafeteria for an impromptu reception, so nothing would go to waste. Sarah Browning, a toast to you: not many people mix administrative skills with a truly warm and giving heart.

So I went to the reception and feasted on falafel and chicken shish kabobs and fruit and cheese, and ended up connecting with Karen Johnston again, some other poets from Massachusetts whom she knew, and a wonderful pair of sisters, Skeeter and Sue Scheid, who lived here. We made instant friends, eating dinner together, talking about all matters local, national, and personal, and exchanging chapbooks and encouragement. (I tried to talk Karen into going to the open mic and reading. She was ambivalent, but I see from her poem about the conference that she took my advice!) I also chatted briefly with Karren Alenier again -- when I picture the conference, I picture her, because we kept landing together -- and exchanged emails and blog addresses. It was all so easy, and fabulously fun. A wonderful validation of the adventures and connections that are possible when you travel solo and fearless into the world.
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Comments:
From: (Anonymous)
2008-03-29 08:44 pm (UTC)

(Link)

I have read your opinions about the poets at Split This Rock. Perhaps it is the inexperience of youth that moves you to post nasty comments about poets such as Pamela Uschuk and Jimmy Santiago Baca for them and other poets to read.

I wish you the life experience and privilege that includes learning how to read your own poetry in front of a large audience, as well as teaching vulnerable students that writing indeed saves lives.

[User Picture]From: old_man_summer
2008-03-30 03:01 am (UTC)

(Link)

And here I thought I was doing rather well to have attended a full weekend of events and only encountered two that did not entirely thrill me!

I'm sorry you were offended by my reactions (even if I am secretly thrilled that you somehow have the idea that I am still young enough to convincingly blame my behavior on my own inexperience).

I liked meeting Prof. Uschuk very much, and enjoyed everything I encountered of her except her reading style at the one featured reading -- hardly a damning criticism of her or her work. As for Baca, I didn't confront any of his poetry at this conference (although I will confess that from what little I know of it, it's not a special favorite of mine) but as a professional I did have genuine concerns about the mental health aspects of his workshops with youth as he had depicted him in his film.

:shrug: I would imagine that both writers are secure enough in their (critically acclaimed and well-published) work and accustomed enough to the occasional negative review that they would be hardly troubled that some blogger with a thin poetic resume and about 10 hits per day was not moved to a higher spiritual plane by a 15-minute encounter with their work. On the other hand, if either of them somehow stumbled here and disliked what they read, I certainly hope they'd let me know and engage in a spirited discussion with me about it.

Negative criticism and differing views have an important place in communities of scholars and artists, which explains why I've tried to be thoughtful in responding to yours. If you'd like to chat further about it, I'd of course be honored. But perhaps you could append your name or handle and email or web address to the body of your entry, since truly anonymous posters, I am sorry to say, are usually spam.
From: (Anonymous)
2008-03-30 05:00 pm (UTC)

split this rock

(Link)

It seems ironic to me that the way I read at Split This Rock is a matter for criticism, especially from someone who doesn’t even name him or herself. I waived my reading fee, arranged for someone to cover my classes (which always takes some doing) and flew across the country to participate in a reading for a cause I believe in. We poets came together to express our opposition to an unjust war. Words are sacred and powerful. I’ve spent a good deal of my life working in prisons, teaching poetry to kids on Native American reservations (working with Assiniboine, Flathead, Crow, Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, Salish, Blackfeet, Navajo, Ute, Hopi, Tohono O’odham, and Yaqui kids), teaching poetry to “at-risk” students in New York, foregoing monied academic positions to help give voice to those who have no voice. In answer to your glib assumption that your criticism doesn’t matter, I believe that everything we say and write does matter. Yes, your criticism was painful. Words used irresponsibly can hurt people and their reputations. Your negative comments about my reading style are now permanently on the Internet for the world to see. What would have happened if you’d have first talked to me about that, in private? Naomi Nye is right, “Bring Back Kindness.” I don’t know what your qualifications for poetry criticism are. I don’t know who you are. At least, reveal your name.

Pamela Uschuk
[User Picture]From: old_man_summer
2008-03-30 05:46 pm (UTC)

Re: split this rock

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Professor Uschuk;

Again, I'm terribly sorry you were hurt by my response to your reading. As I said, I very much enjoyed everything else I heard you say, and I suspect I would like your poetry very much on the page. I've edited my public comments accordingly, because it truly isn't my aim to be hurtful.

People's reactions differ and there's no accounting for taste. In my own writing, I've received painful criticism I've benefitted from, and painful criticism that I eventually judged as worthless and ignored, either because the source of it was not someone I respected or because the negative reaction came from an audience I was not aiming to reach. But then I've honed whatever poetic skills I have in a public online workshop where strongly negative critique -- and gracious response to same -- are both customary.

I've also worked with at-risk, poor, and mentally ill adolescents and adults, both in the context of teaching writing and as a psychologist. (In fact, my journal here is unconnected to my name to nominally protect my family's privacy and safety in the context of my work.) I agree that words are powerful, and I would hope mine in particular are engaging, of interest to my readers, and provocative.

But I think you are perhaps confusing writing as a therapeutic exercise and writing as an art. Traumatized people writing about their life experiences should not have such writings criticized as art, because they are not art. They are therapy. (And people who encourage the writing and reading of such work are therapists, and have to be careful and well-trained about the pandora's box they can unleash. If writing always saved lives, there would be no such thing as a suicide note.)

On the other hand, poets reading on the stage at a public conference are artists. They offer their work with the hope and expectation of some reaction, but they cannot be guaranteed what it will be. Even the greatest artistic geniuses receive poor reviews, both deserved and undeserved. I'm afraid I believe that people who cannot stomach the idea of receiving a public negative review of their performance probably should not perform.

I'm happy to tell you more about my own background, or discuss this more with you in a less-public forum, but I don't have an email address for you. I've screened the comments to this entry only, so if you wish to continue this discussion, feel free to post your email addy here. No one but me will be able to see it, and I will respond to you from my personal account, and you will therefore have my name.
[User Picture]From: old_man_summer
2008-04-02 01:33 am (UTC)

Re: split this rock

(Link)

Well, I tried to screen this thread so you could post email privately, but turns out that if I do this, you can't read my reply. Inconvenient. But if you happen to have a public email, you're welcome to post it, and I will respond. Sorry I can't do better than that. My journal is private only for my family, not to permit me anonymous misbehavior.