Desaulniers’s mention of the Chicago Humanities Festival reminded me that I hadn’t talked about the sessions I saw last fall. Here’s something on one of them. Apologies in advance for the length.
Is the Art Institute on a Saturday afternoon really the best place for a poetry reading?1 Such were my thoughts on November 5 as I worked my way through a crowd of weekend museum-goers to see Stuart Dybek and Lawrence Joseph in a Chicago Humanities Festival session entitled “The Time and Place of the Poem.”2
About 100 people were seated when Dybek and Joseph took the stage. Dybek wore a black long-sleeved polo shirt, jeans, and running shoes. Joseph wore a dark sport coat and dress shirt with dark dress trousers. The session ran one hour, with a 10 minute Q&A. The poets sat on either side of a round table set with a vase of flowers and two bottles of spring water. Patrick Shaw of the Poetry Foundation gave an admirably short introduction (”Dybek is the one with the mustache”), and we were off and running.3
The poets took turns, reading two or three poems with a few prefatory remarks. Both read in a natural speaking voice, which is the way I like it. Dybek reads softly and ends each poem abruptly, as if he’s glad to have gotten through it. Sometimes at the end of the poem he left a pause, into which I found myself silently inserting the words, “Aw, the hell with it.” Though of course he never said that. Joseph’s delivery was a little sharper. You can hear both poets in the sound clips I link to at the end of this post.
Dybek focused on poems from his most recent book, Streets in Their Own Ink. He read:
He also read “Today, Tonight,” which hasn’t been published in book form, and “Between,” which appeared in After Hours a while ago. I don’t think he read anything from his first book.
Joseph has a new book of poetry, Into It. He also has a new collection, Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973-1993, which consists of his previous three books (Shouting at No One, Curriculum Vitae, and Before Our Eyes) collected into one volume. From Into It he read:
“In It, Into It, Inside It, Down In”
“The Bronze-Green Gold Green Foreground”
“On That Side”
He also read “Do What You Can” from Shouting, and “The Great Society” and “By the Way” from Curriculum. He also read a poem that included the phrase “a world is a wild system of desires,” which is driving me nuts because I liked it and can’t find it in any of his books.
Dybek started. “The Volcano” was inspired by a visit he made to his old neighborhood (Pilsen/Little Village) last year with Judy Valente for Chicago Public Radio (audio here). They were standing behind the house he grew up in on 25th Street, and when he looked up he noticed the gigantic brick chimney that he used to gaze up at as a child. “The Volcano” tries to capture the feelings that chimney evoked.
Before reading “Benediction,” Dybek explained the importance of Catholic traditions and rites in his old neighborhood. When the priest would hold the monstrance above his head, it would look “almost as if it was burning.” The word “monstrance” itself had had strange, frightening echoes. Then Dybek paused, smiled, and said, “I wish I had put that stuff into the poem.” [Laughter]
Later, he talked about the misconception that poets who write about the city don’t write about nature. He mentioned a Milkweed Press anthology about looking for nature in the city. By way of introducing his poem, “Today, Tonight,” he mentioned how, when he was 25, he moved from Chicago to St. Thomas in the Caribbean for a teaching job. He lived there for two years on a hill that overlooked Drake’s Passage. The poem was inspired by his experience one day watching (with some puzzlement) a herd of goats swimming out to sea.
Joseph, like Dybek, was raised a Catholic in an immigrant family. Joseph’s family is Lebanese and Syrian, and his father ran a market in inner-city Detroit. (Here’s a picture of the building where the market used to be.) A crucial event in Joseph’s life occurred on February 2, 1970, when his father was shot in a hold-up at the market. Joseph explained that although he’s lived in New York since 1981, the city of Detroit exerts a continuing influence on his poetry. He cited Dante and Cavafy, both strongly identified with their home cities, as poets he particularly admired.
Before reading “Unyieldingly Present,” Joseph talked about lower Manhattan, where he now lives. He was there on the morning of 9/11, and in fact he and his wife were unable to find each other for more than a day after the event. He read each line of the poem almost as if it were a question.
As an introduction to his poem “On That Side,” Joseph talked about Green Dolphin Street, the classic jazz tune mentioned in the poem. He noted he’d heard about the bar in Chicago by the same name, but had never visited it. His favorite version of the tune is by Dinah Washington. He talked about his father’s admiration for Washington’s husband, Dick “Night Train” Lane, who played for the Detroit Lions in the 1960s. This must have produced some reaction from an old-time Bears fan in the front rows, because Joseph quickly added, “Well, you can hiss [if you want].” He said his father almost threw the TV through the window when the Bears of that era beat his beloved Lions.
For a moment I thought Joseph was actually angry. Then I realized he was kidding. But after that, as I listened to him read, I noticed that real anger threads through many of his poems. It’s something that’s immediately obvious when you read his poetry; it’s peculiar that, seeing him read, it took that awkward moment for me to notice.
Before reading “Bath,” Dybek said “I think the only thing you need to know before I read this poem is that ‘busha’ means grandmother.”4 The poem describes how a grandmother lovingly bathes her grandson. A nice image in this poem: “Busha towels his hair / as if reviving a drowned sailor / the sea has graciously returned.”
Here’s an abbreviated account of the Q&A session:
For Lawrence: You mentioned Cavafy â€” how has he influenced your work?
“A lot. And he’s also influenced Stuart. If you don’t know, Cavafy was a Greek poet who lived in Alexandria. He’s really the poet that made me aware of the poetic potential of the city that one knows â€” he made Alexandria mythical. Dybek does that for Chicago, by the way. Even Bellow didn’t make Chicago mythical like Dybek does.”
For Stuart: To what extent does childhood become a necessary subject? Or, when you wrote about cities, where does childhood fit in?
“Having written a book called Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, you’d think I could answer that question, wouldn’t you? [Laughter] Childhood is deeply integrated, not even separate from our home places. A kid’s neighborhood can be an extraordinary reality. It isn’t about nostalgia; it’s about changes in perception as you grow older. The relationship between childhood and London in Charles Dickens is a great example.”
[Joseph added his observation about Detroit being unusual in that it's a city you experienced, as a child, mostly from the window of a car, and at the same time you're always aware that Detroit was where cars came from. His point eludes me, actually, but it strikes me as the kind of thought a poem could better convey.]
For Stuart, is the poem “Three Windows” about a specific time and place?
Yes, “Three Windows” is about a place called the Logan Arms Hotel.
For Lawrence: How do law and poetry enhance each other for you?
“Writing came first. But the most important thing a writer needs is freedom to write, and law has given that to me. Almost all of my peers who went into literature â€” it reminds me of Wittgenstein who said “the limits of my library are the limits of my world.” For me, I have the need imaginatively to be in the world rather than in the library. Observing human behavior is important to me.”
More Information:Â Dybek reading “Windy City”and “Autobiography” from Streets in Their Own Ink
Dybek interviews with Birnbaum, Chicagoist, Publisher’s Weekly, Chicago Public Library, and profiles at MSU and Lannan.
Reviews of Streets in America Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle.
Joseph reading “Into It.”
Joseph interview at Downtown Express and profiles at Wikipedia, Marygrove College, Detroit Free Press, Downtown Express, and St. John’s.
Reviews of Into It and Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos in New York Times, Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Joseph has also written a novel, Lawyerland, which has been optioned by John Malkovich’s film production company.
1 One of the unique things about CHF is that every year has a different theme, and that all speakers are asked to address the theme in their readings or remarks. This year’s theme was “Home and Away.” Surprisingly, most speakers, like Dybek and Joseph, do a nice job of addressing the theme, and we therefore end up with something different and more interesting than their typical reading or lecture. Of course there are always exceptions.
2 The answer is hell, yes. Because, if you’re early, what better place to kill time?
3. Dybek responded, “I was going to shave my mustache but I didn’t want to ruin the introduction.”
4. Mrs. Jones: “He said that to a Chicago audience?”