There are not enough exclamation points in all the computers in all the land to punctuate the effect of a small child reading new poetry by Zachary Schomburg over some growling ambient music to a room full of Portland's literary finest.
The kid, Hamza Akalin, was one of the night's many "models" of new poetry. In case you missed my preview, I'll fill you in on the concept: Five Portland poets, taking cues from the fashion world's various Fashion Week events, present new, unpublished poetry to an audience of publishers, editors, agents, and journalists via a crew of readers and performers who are not the poets themselves.
Sounds dubious! I questioned it; I wrestled all day with how weird it was going to be. As one of those journalists, I was assigned a seat near the action, and couldn't tell how tongue-in-cheek it was, or how much of the show was going to include the industry people.
As it happened, Liz Mehl and Justin Rigamonti's first Portland Poetry Press Week came together beautifully. The Literary Arts space downtown felt busy but not cramped; the beer was cheap; the poetry was fantastic, varied, and stunningly performed; and Instagramming was encouraged.
WARNING: Kinda blurry Instagram photos contained in this post!
I lost the light in the puddle with my face in it and a stick.
I lost the way to be with you.
I lost the wind coming through my window and the bed below it.
I lost blood.
I lost blood and stars and the fifth grade.
Poetry by Matthew Dickman kicked things off, alternating between "obsessive list" poems and Event Scores that riffed openly on the Fluxus tradition of simple directed performance as art by infusing the directions themselves with brilliant, impossible poetry. In one piece, the performers are directed to quickly crumple newspapers into the shape of a monster that lives inside them, then they throw them on the ground where the paper is meant to dance for "between ten minutes and ten days.”
Dickman's poetry was typically gripping and immediate. The final reading by Monica Storss was heartbreaking, and sniffles and the choking-back of tears were audible in the room.
Next up, in the most traditionally performance poetry exhibition of the night, two readers read from what appeared to be a new series of "IDEAL MACHINE" poems by Ashley Toliver. Dressed simply in white tops and black bottoms, the women took turns reading poems, sometimes facing one another, sometimes facing the audience, sometimes repeating one another or enacting call-and-response rhythms.
It was one of the best examples of the ways a poet's work can change as it enters the world through different mouths. Like the same dress on different models, Toliver's poetry was aurally angular and languagey from Wakefield, thoughtful and human from Bernstein. To see poetry pulled apart like that was one of the great benefits of this strange format. Toliver's was also the only work that was not projected in print on the wall behind the performers.
After an intermission, a more or less surprise appearance by local favorite Laura Gibson brought an impressive handful of new poems by Britta Ameel. Gibson read, sang, asked the audience to sing, played guitar, and generally was an excellent model for Ameel's cool, breezily haunting poems. Gibson was the most humanly vocal of the night's “models,” often breaking the performative fourth wall and giving her own personal take on Ameel's work or their past together.
Carl Adamshick supplied a poem called “Black Snow” which was read piece by piece by four readers. In true fashion-show style, the readers walked forward, read, and walked to the back of the line, coming out again in turn to read another section of the poem. It didn't happen behind any stage walls or anything, but it really had the feeling of a model showing a piece of work and then heading back to change into the next piece.
Finally, in what was the absolute knockout of the night, a deep, bone-buzzing bass growl crept through the room, and a child's voice began reading the words appearing on the wall. During a break in the poem, the kid came slowly and seriously out of a back hallway somewhere, dressed in a classic white sheet with two eye-holes ghost costume and holding an old book.
You couldn't see his face; he couldn't quite get the microphone in the stand. He read the poem from inside an obscure old book; Schomburg held the book up for him. He read with a cold deadpan delivery; he read in the voice of a child. It was the perfect mix of creepy and adorable—the ideal model for a Zachary Schomburg poem.
Mehl and Rigamonti want to make this a biannual event, and I can't wait for the next one. Rubbing elbows with publishers, editors, fans, and readers is always fun, but it's all the more fun to exchange jaw-dropped looks and mouth the words “Holy Shit” to someone you've just met. If Mehl and Rigamonti can keep the poets at this caliber and the audience this rapt, they've got the makings of a brilliant new kind of poetry event.