On April 11, 2017, Wesley Rothman and Ryan Wilson shared their poetry with university students, staff, and local guests to celebrate National Poetry Month at The Catholic University of America (CUA). The event was co-sponsored by the ALSCW and CUA’s English Graduate Organization (good-humoredly known as EGO), and guests were invited to arrive ready to participate: placed at the auditorium’s entrance was a sign-up sheet for the open-mic portion of the evening’s program. Rothman and Wilson, both doctoral candidates and English instructors at CUA, encouraged all of us—friends, students, and strangers alike—to sign up to recite a work of our own or that of a favorite poet.
I’ll be the first to admit that I often bribe students with extra credit to attend events like this one. Upending preconceptions of poetry readings as dull, inaccessible affairs is, in my opinion, more than worth the price of a little grade inflation. In many ways, this past April’s event persuasively answered the perennial challenge to ensure that readings remain vibrant celebrations of poetry itself rather than of any one particular poet: this was done not only through the open-mic portion of the event but also by pairing two talented but markedly different poets whose work reverberates with a diverse array of poetic influences and forms.
Wesley Rothman opened the reading with a half dozen poems from his debut book SUBWOOFER (New Issues 2017), an Editor’s Selection as part of the New Issues Poetry Prize. True to the collection’s title, we heard Rothman’s poetry pulse to a beat that demands attention and reflection, amplifying and harmonizing with the voices of his models, among them Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. “Kneebone in the Wilderness,” for instance, adopts the rhythmic patterns of traditional African American work songs and spirituals, in which harsh imperatives and an insistent “I” engage in a call-and-response that highlights the speaker’s struggle for survival:
Bend to this foreign sun. Kneel for mercy
………. That will not come. Learn dirtied blood & salt
In soil. Become a stone of this earth.
………. I bring rhythm, my worship, harness the stomp
& clap of rising embers. I bring beating
………. To its knees. With my beat kneeling down
I am free from its beating. I am free of this
………. Hard-dying continent in me.
………. ………. ………. Kneebone bend to save my soul.
Other poems combine musical references with visual ones: “SAMO© Blues,” for example, riffs on the graffiti tag Basquiat used on the streets of 1970’s New York. Rothman prefaced his reading of the poem by alerting his listeners to its various visual markers—such as the copyright symbol and struck-through text, both used in the poem’s culmination:
SAMO© IS DEAD
SAMO© is risen SAMO©
Will come again lives on
While reading, Rothman used vocal inflections and gestures to underscore the subtle sliding back and forth from “Same old” to “SAMO©” to “Same, oh” and other similar but deliberately distinct variations. One can imagine how a multi-media performance of his poems—or a collaborative presentation with musical and visual artists—would draw out even further the poems’ intricate aural and visual layering as well as that of their source texts, but Rothman’s nuanced reading of his own work stands strong on its own.
Following a brief intermission, Ryan Wilson shared a selection of poems from his debut collection The Stranger World (Measure Press 2017)—winner of the Donald Justice Poetry Prize—as well as some new, as-yet unpublished poems. To the poetic pantheon Rothman had invoked just moments before, Wilson added echoes of Horace, Hopkins, Rilke, Baudelaire, and Beowulf. In both his poem selections and performance (he delivers his poems from memory, in what is better described as dramatic monologue than recitation), Wilson seemed keenly attuned to his student audience—an audience that might be inclined, upon encountering poetry written in received forms, to declare with Marianne Moore that “I, too, dislike it.” He distributed printed copies of the poems and explained some of their formal qualities in brief and often light-hearted prefatory remarks—“the poem ‘Face It,’ to my knowledge, is the first and so far only bref double published in English,” Wilson joked. His presentation and even individual poems themselves moved like an O’Connor story, as audience laughter made way for moments of doubt, darkness, and revelation meant to catch us by surprise. “Face It” begins with “A silence, bodied like wing-beaten air” that “Perturbs your face sometimes when parties end” and finally brings us face to face with
That unidentified fleck, approaching and
Receding at once, rapt in the wind’s spell—
Pulse, throb, winged dark that haunts the clean light’s glare,
That thing that you’re becoming, that you are.
Likewise, in “For a Dog,” humorous, quotidian descriptions of a “shrill, insistent bark” that yapped at “empty air,” “some ghosted scent,” or “some phantom thing” lead to a Dantesque contemplation of infinite layers of existence beyond our immediate comprehension—“that present unity / Of absences the living move among, / In which what was, what will, and what can’t be / Dance in a ring to a triumphant song. . . ” Frequently in Wilson’s poems, an encounter with silence, absence, and emptiness—Hemingway’s nada, or its opposite—provides the space needed, as he says in “The Problem,” to “find out exactly who you are.” It was appropriate, then, that Wilson closed his own performance and invited the audience to the stage by channeling Rilke with “Letter to a Young Poet”:
Make us believe love will provide
Alternatives to suicide. . .
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
What is it you’d die to receive?
Give us that—that stay, that brute reprieve.
The night, unsounded, will abide:
………. Make us believe.
Understandably, it took a few minutes and deep breaths for those of us in the seats to summon the courage to follow the masterful performances of Rothman and Wilson. But, one by one, we added our own contributions to the evening’s chorus: some, members of CUA’s English graduate student-led creative writing group, shared their own poems; others recited favorite works by poets as wide-ranging as Emily Dickinson, e. e. cummings, Robert Penn Warren, Billy Collins, and David Bottoms. Those who didn’t bring books with them scoured the internet and read their favorite poems from their smartphones; those who at the event’s beginning looked on an open-mic opportunity with trepidation now approached the podium with enthusiasm. When the final poem was performed and EGO events coordinator Jonathan Wanner announced the close of the evening’s program, the ending seemed to have arrived too soon. “When are we doing this again?” a student asked. I, for one, cannot think of any line that could close a poetry reading better than that.