It’s a long shot, but if someone were to ask me what contemporary poetry looks like, I would direct them to hop in a time machine, turn the knobs back to around 1:45 Saturday October 19, and then hustle to the Henry Art Gallery auditorium. There, in the front row, my querier might spy poets Matthew Dickman and Dorothea Lasky all abuzz on Instagram, snapping photos of just about everything—including themselves Instagramming each other—Dickman garbed modestly in a powder-blue shirt, loose jeans, and galoshes, Lasky dazzling in supersized jewelry, a leopard-print dress, and multicolored suede high-heeled boots. The curious chrononaut might also pick out Joshua Beckman, poet and editor at Wave Books, chatting off to the side, shuffling folded pages of poems in his hands, and looking quite a bit like folk star Justin Vernon in a beige stocking cap and loose pinkish shirt.
Of course, the object of this clock-thwarting jaunt would not be to observe these poets’ personal fashion or Instagram hijinks—contemporary though they may be—but rather to attend the reading they gave celebrating the launch of “What We Have Done,” a new solo exhibition at the Henry by sculptor Jason Doge. Beckman, Dickman, and Lasky were in excellent form on Saturday, their poems a veritable supermarket of modern poetic technique, each line a shelf stocked with products both hilarious and unnerving, irreverent and plaintive.
Beckman began the program with two short pieces from his new book, The Inside of an Apple (Wave Books, 2013)—vivid poems that presented natural imagery like water and rocks subtly distorted and estranged. He followed with some recent, unpublished poems, all of which he had printed together on one or two poster-size pieces of paper, and which he held close to his face while reading, as though searching for something in the type. These newer poems were like photographic negatives of the first two: fast-paced and urgent, full of dense, spondaic assonances and irregular repetitions reminiscent of Steve Reich’s work in phasing. In a tremendous feat of verbal alchemy, Beckman drew not only images but entire ambiences out of these poems’ dislocated words and phrases, a trick both dizzying and intensely immersive to observe.
Dickman followed with a spate of gritty, sinister poems suffused with both schadenfreude and genuine desperation, though the line between these two attitudes was often unsettlingly difficult to discern. The influence of Whitman and Ginsberg was apparent throughout, especially in the prominence of the first person “I” and the frequent catalogue-like lists of anaphoric one-line declarations. Dickman’s tone of voice never strayed far from a sigh, though at times it seemed more like a whine, as when he slipped into an eerie childlike idiom, invoking the language of family arguments and elementary school play-threats. Dickman fidgeted and squirmed as he read, perhaps for dramatic effect, leaning on the podium and gesturing abstractly like a spoken word artist. And indeed, these poems had all the pathos and immediacy of a winning slam entry, deftly paired with Dickman’s command of an impressive rotation of narrative styles and his bleak, outré sense of humor.
Outré humor then reached delirious new heights when Lasky took the stage, jewelry clacking, to finish the reading. Sampling from her recent book, Thunderbird (Wave Books, 2012), as well as from a forthcoming collection called Rome, Lasky read primarily love poems—not of the flowers and chocolate and moonlight variety, but bizarre, impish lyrics like the irresistible “I Love Weird Ass Hippies.” In blunt declarative sentences, Lasky professed her love to a wide array of unlikely amours, including men with back hair, the Austrian poet Georg Trakl, and Diet Mountain Dew (of which Lasky claimed to drink multiple liters per hour!). Still other pieces paid homage to Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning,” satirized persona poems in a piece called “I Am Richard Pryor,” and considered the relationship between poetry and mortality in by far the soberest poem of the set, “Why Poetry Can Be Hard For Most People.”
While Beckman, Dickman, and Lasky each represent a unique voice and position in today’s poetry world, their individual styles complemented each other remarkably throughout the event. The reading, in all, showcased the intelligence, humor, and sensitivities of three eminently present-tense figures in American verse, three writers whose performance reflected so well on the state of contemporary poetry, it would be well worth the effort to go back in time and relive it.
Dorothea Lasky will read at Seattle Arts and Lectures on Thursday, November 21 (tickets available here).
To read Lasky’s poem, “Me and the Otters,” click here.
To read Matthew Dickman’s poem, “In Heaven,” click here.
To read Joshua Beckman’s poem, “[I’m not with my],” click here.