Monday, May 24, 2010

Poetry Festival, Part One

This weekend, La Conner is the host of the 6th Biennial Skagit River Poetry Festival. Poets from all over the world (and fans) are giving (and attending) talks and workshops all over the town. Due to the length of the post, I will break it into sections so it is easier to read. (Part Two).

On Friday, I was able to join the local high school group as a chaperon, and attend several of the events throughout the day.  Here is a brief review of what I attended, who was there, and some memorable quotes from poets.

The day opened up with a Poetry Sampler at the Museum of Northwest Art with four poets: 13th US Poet Laureate Ted Koozer, Valzhyna Mort, Terrance Hayes, and Matthew Dickman.

All images are from the Skagit River Poetry Festival poet bio page. I claim no rights to them, and encourage you to see the original page to learn about the poets.

Ted Koozer, despite his title of Poet Laureate, didn't call attention to it until after a few poems. He described growing up in Nebraska, and how he worked at an insurance company for many years until he was a Vice President. "You work in a job like that long enough, and soon you float to the top like a corpse full of gas," he said. He got in the habit of writing poetry early mornings before work; often wakening at 4:30, and writing until 7 before he got ready for the day's work.

I wish I was able to see (and hear) more of his work. It was sad to see such a great figure in US Literature being interrupted by a group of late students tramping loudly up the metal stairs of the museum.

Next up, the young and petite Valzhyna Mort took the stage, and without an introduction jumped right into a fierce and intense rendition of her poem Belarusian I (which can be found at the link on her name above). Her Belorussian accent seeped into the poem and made it all the more intense and memorable. The first words that came to mind about her poetry were "harsh" and "lashing," but not in a negative way, just as an observation.

Once she introduced herself she said: "You are all high schoolers? I hate high school. And I hate high schoolers." Thinking she was joking, everyone laughed loudly, to which she replied (broken quoting on my part): "High school is the worst part of your lives...You all think you are the shit... don't know how many of you are having sex. You think this is sex you are having. You have no idea."

The audience of teens (and adults) really liked her comments, and her poetry. Even though she could belt out and whip-lash poetry out in her accent, as soon as she wasn't "performing" and just speaking, her voice was shaky and she looked nervous. I thought it was interesting--having performed in front of people before--that all she needed to be comfortable is reading poetry as almost another character: The quick-tongued Belorussian poet. (Look her up on YouTube to hear her performances--less harsh though).

Right after Valzhyna finished up with her poem, White Apples in two languages--original Belorussian, and English for a comparison--then Terrance Hayes came up.

Terrance was a tall man, wearing two watches, and he started with: "If you want answers, ask questions." He followed up with saying "Well, I love keeds," to which everyone laughed. He explained that lying is fun, especially in fiction like poetry. Even though most people think poems are autobiographical, he said poets just make stuff up. "If you're boring you gotta make stuff up."

Just like Valzhyna, Terrance drew in his audience with comedy, and talked in between poems to give backstories and explanations for the work. His poem Shakur was about this story he heard from one of his friends in Nebraska, "probably the only black man in Nebraska. I don't remember his name, but you probably know who I'm talking about," he said to Koozer. The story behind the poem was about these kids that got high on meth, drove out during a snowstorm, and died from exposure when they decided to take a nap in the car.

"I heard this story, and I was wondering what music they were listening to as they froze to death out there," said Terrance. "Turns out, they were listening to Tupac Shakur; thus the name." In the poem, there's a line about "the drugs that made them think they were warm enough to chill."

Almost through with his set, someone asked what his name was, because he never said it. Also, someone asked about his two watches. His daughter had bought him a watch years ago and he already owned one at the time. "Mine was nicer than hers, but there wasn't a way I couldn't wear hers, so I wear both."

The final poet of this session was Matthew Dickman, who had walked in late to the event, looked very disheveled. He walked up to the mic and said: "I'm not hungover...and I'll keep telling myself that." Right away this set up the atmosphere for his set. He went on to say that in high school, everyone is cool and weird, and our bodies feel funny, but that goes away with time. "It's this time that I started reading the Beats, like Jack Kerouac, and listening to that 'why is my head so messed up' music by The Pixies." He was very out there, and alternative, and really reminded me very much of a cross between Hank Green, and Rainn Wilson. The audience really liked his offbeat, slightly hungover persona that clashed with some of the poets around him.

Matthew said that language breaks down when extreme emotions come into play. For examples, when you feel ecstatic love someone all you can say is "she's hot," or "I like her...ears." When there's deeply-felt grief, you might only say "He's gone." These things destroy language, but poetry is able to bring in a new layer that can help communicate feelings.

He finished with two poems that express the two ends of the spectrum--love and grief. One was We Are Scientists in which Michael explains the time spent away from his girlfriend in his "Frankenstein love poem," where he creates a girlfriend stand-in with piles of clothes and shocks it to life.

The grief poem was Satellites and used the idea of satellites beaming images from his memory so he could print them out in order to remember someone who had died.

Soon I will post more about the rest of the day's poetry sessions. Enjoy. (Part Two).


  1. Thanks for this! I was also at the festival and am going to link this post up to my blog if that's okay.

    All best,

  2. Thanks for posting all these great details, Alexander. I so wanted to be up there but couldn't make it. Your post makes me feel like I was there, if only for a few minutes.

  3. Nice review of a wonderful day :)
    I got a real Hank Green vibe from Matthew Dickman (Ithink you mixed the names up...) as well!
    But when I compared him to my friends they were sort of clueless.
    I really enjoyed this session, thanks for revisiting it, reminding me of the things the awesome poets said.

  4. Thanks everyone!

    More is on the way...once I find time set aside for it.

    And yes, I'm pretty sure I mixed up the names. The schedule I had only had one of their names, for all the times either of them showed up. And this of course threw off the notes I took.

  5. Lovely to read this! This is the first Skagit River Poetry Festival that is being fully embraced by bloggers -- the world has changed in two years!

  6. ugh. just what i thought-dickman brothers are quite the substance at ALL compared to the great Terrance Hayes!