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Brett Foster


Bob Hicok and Jamaal May

Spoken words worth the trip.

"Lively" or "entertaining" are not the first words that come to mind when one thinks of most poetry readings. Most are not remembered as fun. I love them, but they're just not. Revealing the depths of spirit, or giving voice to the complexities of personal experience—yes. Those attending poetry readings usually expect something meaningful; they are meant to be meaningful, you might say. That expectation, the relative simplicity of the format, and what is therefore required of an audience (crystallized in a cooing murmur, that "Mmmm" of recognition or agreement that follows a particularly well-received poem) all are key aspects of a poetry reading. What's not to love? Many or at least a few people sitting attentively and listening, hoping to be surprised and moved. Yet for some in the crowd such an event remains a serious business—mainly a duty best shared, if it must be shared, collectively by the assembled sensitive. Now, the seriousness of most poetry readings does not preclude deep enjoyment or even joyousness sometimes. Recently a former student contacted me to say she had just attended a poetry reading by Irish Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney at the Art Institute of Chicago. There is no poet living today who conveys a greater dignity or gravity, and yet he was far from being off-putting or humorless. "It was marvelous!" my student exclaimed. She said Heaney was so much better in person, and while reading his poetry, than when she had first heard him, in our classroom, in a recorded interview on News Hour about his Beowulf translation. I happily responded by saying the most obvious thing possible: "Yes, of course!"

I count myself fortunate in the extreme that I too have attended readings like this one and have been transported, have left feeling similarly thrilled. But they still weren't fun, exactly. They may have been something far more important, and almost certainly rarer, but they weren't that. Even with the best-case-scenario poetry reading, you'd be a fool to expect cheering, let's say, or laughter. If there's cheering, the poet has probably found herself mistakenly at a college sporting event rather than her appointed lecture hall somewhere else on campus. And if there's laughter, the poet is probably onstage and reading, unknowingly, with his zipper down.

Thanks to serendipities of time and place, I was able to attend the latest poetry reading in Georgia Tech's nationally recognized year-long series. (Other visitors this year include Naomi Shihab Nye, Michael Dickman, and Kim Addonizio.) The two poets reading that night, Bob Hicok and Jamaal May, could hardly differ more in writing style or style of delivery, but both were terrific and well worth the hearing. And yes, there was laughter and cheering, so let it never be said again that these are incontrovertibly foreign elements of a poetry reading. It was an improbably fun event. Both Hicok and May are poets with unique voices and visions. Both are worth knowing more about—if they are not giving readings near you anytime soon, then pick up their books, a couple of which I will recommend below. In the meantime, it'll be my pleasure to capture as best as I can, as if from a silent distance, the reading itself.

Not knowing Atlanta well, I tentatively made my way to Tenth Street and the Institute of Paper Science and Technology, which seemed a fitting location for a poetry reading. Thomas Lux, who holds a distinguished writing chair at Georgia Tech, and whose new book, Child Made of Sand, is just out, announced the memorial occasion for the evening, the Adam Stephens Night Out for Poetry, in honor of a victim of a drunken driver. He introduced the first reader, Bob Hicok, by referring to Hicock's Michigan background, how he worked for a tool & die company in the automotive industry, and how his poems feature "electrical associations" and "constant surprises that always turn out to seem inevitable."

To hear Hicok's poems, read in the author's dry way, is to ride a roller coaster of successive subjects, of recurring "meta" moments that comment on the poem-in-progress itself, and of wild shifts where the tone suddenly drops or loops into what could easily be a different poem. To illustrate this hard-to-define quality, consider one of the first poems Hicok read, "In Michael Robins's class minus one," from his 2007 collection This Clumsy Living. The poem presents an interview with the Chicago River: "He asks, why did you fill the boy with your going? / I didn't know a boy had been added to me, the river says. / Would you have given him back if you knew? / I think so, the river says, I have so many boys in me, / I'm worn out stroking eyes looking up at the day." That mix of the comic and cartoonish with the macabre and menacing feels characteristic of Hicok's writing, and somehow it often arrives at a place of great tenderness as well. For those unfamiliar with Hicok's poetry at the reading, his quiet, thoughtful delivery and casual appearance (jeans and a brown t-shirt) may have at first belied the energetic range of expression on display in This Clumsy Living. One poem's speaker, having just received a haircut, can speak with childlike sensory directness; his shorn head feels as if "my skin is eating peppermint, my head is tingly" while elsewhere a more direct approach conveys powerfully the anxiety of one speaker about the health of his beloved:

The body of the woman
has many ways to cease
being the body of the woman.
I have one way
to be happy
and she is that way.

A poem such as "My last factory job" reveals Hicok's ongoing interest in our working lives and his own rust-belt experience. His poems with social concerns, such as this one or "Everything's Fine," which he read at Georgia Tech and which contemplates global warming, resist either valorizing or soap-boxing. Instead, they proceed with a matter-of-factness balanced with a penchant for pointing out the absurd angles of a topic or situation.

Other poems' lines resemble the set-ups of stand-up comics: "At a party I talked with a man / and woman in the old style of listening / and letting sentences be finished," one speaker says, followed by, "The liquor was good / and by good I mean someone else's." This comic element was present too in the last poem that Hicok read, which is also the final poem in his most recent book, Words for Empty Words for Full. "Primer" displays a loving if self-deprecating attention to the state of the poet's birth: "I lived in Michigan / forty-three years. The state bird / is a chained factory gate. The state flower / is Lake Superior, which sounds egotistical / though it is merely cold and deep as truth. / A Midwesterner can use the word 'truth,' / can sincerely use the word 'sincere.' " You never forget how to be from Michigan, the wry speaker continues: "It's like riding a bike of ice and fly fishing." The zingers just keep coming—" 'What did we do?' / is the state motto"—until the poem expands in its feeling at the end: "In this way I have given you a primer. / Let us all be from somewhere. / Let us tell each other everything we can."

Words for Empty and Words for Full would be an apt first volume for encountering Hicok's diverse poetic effects. "In these times" begins the book by brooding on the economic downturn, and on a modern landscape generally that makes a later speaker remark, "sometimes / how eager / we are / to die." Growing class inequality and the foreclosures that have affected so many homeowners become the subjects of "Weebles wobble but they don't fall down" and "For the time capsule." Dizzying shifts of scale occur, as in "Kinesis" where a broken Krups carafe leads to internet research and the company's activity in World War II and our consumer compromises, the "six million / instances of ash you're a part of [.]" Other poems contemplate the violence of recent and ongoing wars; one offers a short list of mass shootings with what seems at first a disturbing irreverence: "I have killed no one, I am behind."

The subject becomes horribly real and personal for Hicok in a series of poems in the middle of the book. Hicok for several years has been a professor of creative writing at Virginia Tech, and so was present during the mass shooting there. One of the strongest poems of this series, "So I know," daringly humanizes the killer by focusing on the moisturizer he was reported to use. The speaker declares the kind of self-recrimination that must be unavoidable for teachers who lived and knew of the student's troubles ("Don't know why the kid didn't come after me, / I nearly failed him" the next poem begins). "You did not / do enough, I write to myself, about the kid / who turned in writing about killing / a few buildings from where he killed. / With soft hands in Norris Hall killed. / This is my confession." Certain poems become intense testimonies of post-traumatic stress ("I don't want his face / behind my eyes") or witnesses of a campus trying to recover normalcy—"Students are full // of being full of grief, it's coming out their feet / as they sprint after the Frisbee[.]" Another of the section's strongest poems, "In the loop," begins with the awkward ritual of condolences sent via email, and ends with a sober assessment of how an event of this magnitude clings to and haunts survivors: "and then it was over, and then it had just begun." These poems were inevitably the ones that received the most attention in Words for Empty and Words for Full, and Hicok even addresses in one poem the expected criticism that the poems were written or published too soon. There are many poems on either side of these, though, as important and courageous as this series is, and throughout the book Hicok's unpredictable inspirations are patent, and to be savored.

The second speaker was Jamaal May, a young writer whom the poetry world has taken definite notice of lately. His first full collection just won Alice James Books' Beatrice Hawley Prize, and will be available in fall 2013. In the meantime, readers should check out poems in online journals and YouTube clips or, better yet, purchase his two available chapbooks, God Engine and The Whetting of Teeth. May is currently a Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University, and has been a fellow with Cave Canem, a literary collective for African American artists. I heard him read earlier this year at the AWP conference and at the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College. He blew me away, which is not saying much because he has been blowing everybody away. Partly it's the power of his writing, and partly his talents as a reader, reciter, and performer of his work. Pointing out May's background in hip-hop and his national accomplishments as a poetry-slam participant will give readers a helpful initial sense of his delivery and stage presence, but really, you need to hear him for yourself, even if for now it's by means of YouTube.

Introducing May, Thomas Lux spoke of the poet's "tremendous energy" and praised him for being "unafraid of being understood." In his emphasis on recitation and a spoken-word style of reading, he was, according to Lux, bringing poetry back to its roots in oral speech. May's book will be called Hum, a title likely related to a poem he read, "Detroit Hum," with its focus on cabinets rattling and the whir of a laptop on his sister's lap. It may also allude to the noise of the GE freezer that is the title poem's opening focus in God Engine, or the "motor and thrum" in a later poem about the fear of machines, one of several May has written about various phobias. That laptop image captures well the youthful outlook and lifestyle that May memorably records in his poetry, reflected as well in his black-framed glasses and a heart-shaped Lego pin he wore, which for some odd reason I keep remembering. One love poem develops from a habit of mis-typing "I live you" in a text message. (This reminded me of a less romantic but funnier message I recently received that said "I have been looking forward to sending this massage"—well, hello there.) The poems often have that quality of immediacy as when friends talk to friends: "You know how I get," one speaker casually says. May's figures of speech, too, begin as everyday objects that become striking in the poet's hands: "We move quiet / as fluorescent lights going dim."

Seen another way, there is little that is casual about May's writing. Some poems feature an impassioned speaker addressing a lover—"When did we become so fluid in this ghost talk?"—while others assume an almost homiletic or prophetic tone as speakers observe the land's social challenges. "Granada" was one of the memorable examples of this poetic mode at the Georgia Tech reading. May has also worked as a poet in the public schools, and he began by quoting some of the sublime output from these young writers: "What sky did we fall from?" wrote one sixth-grader. In "Granada," the speaker addresses one such student, Jontae, 11, whose own line of verse becomes the epigraph here: "The heart trembles like a herd of horses." (These Detroit poet kids are good!) "You are writing a stampede // into my chest," the poet says, as he grows concerned about the crossroads awaiting his pupil, the choice between war and art, a choice that the poem makes more etymologically stark in the title word, granada—pomegranate or grenade, which one will the boy hold in his hand? The poet wishes for his student a different kind of infrared, an artistic seeing in the dark, and wishes for him poetry "as a countermeasure to recruitment videos," wishes for him the knowledge of the example of Tiananmen Square. Jontae will not stand alone, the poem reassures him, and the poet will be joined, he hopes, by this younger fellow artist. The pen taken from a backpack stands as a better alternative to the pin pulled from a grenade.

I used a roller-coaster image earlier when describing Bob Hicok's shifts and loops of thought, and now I must resort to the image again, but in a different way. When May's intensity grows in the course of a poem, or when he is confidently reciting his verses from memory, it feels like nothing so much as the whole room climbing to the peak of a coaster rail; that night, listeners were rapt by "Granada," held in suspension, and awaiting the next burst of speed and energy. This poem won for May the audience's applause. This auditory emphasis is still present in the poems' printed form. Take, for example, the syncopation in the following lines from "Listening to Uncle":

Seen but not. Heard
as echo ring of a snare wane
of a note plucked
from an out-of-tune Dreadnaught.

Within the poems, too, speakers remain sensitive to these effects. "Notice the similarity to hymn or chant," says one, describing the statements I love the body and I love the word. Then attention shifts to a communion scene in a church: "and if this man offered his blood and flesh, what had / we become now that we were all lined up like words / in scriptures, arranged neatly on pews like suit-clad / lines of verse consuming a man before we pray?" Later in The Whetting of Teeth, the poem "Pyrophobia" is composed more explicitly as a chant, while in "Hydrophobia" May's use of line break and sound effect creates mesmerizing effects:

There is an icicle
on the other side of the locked door
taking its time to drill a hollow
into a barrow of snow, one drop
at a time. I'm noticing
my hands,
how little they hold.

Detroit is prominent in May's work; he's the son of two auto workers there. One of the poems he read featured this rich domestic scene: "My Dad once fiddled with a dead Camaro, refusing to believe its silence." The poem "Warhouse" refers to the name that neighborhood kids gave to a "dilapidated colonial" that they imagined was a "weapons stockpile / or a government test facility[.]" These boys are further delineated in "Taking a Pseudonym," where "City boys pin nicknames / to each other like medals": Ghost, Head, Smooth, Jergens. The poem's ending considers Detroit, "a place where darkness / sits like a judge[.]" Is it more Gotham or Metropolis, Batman's or Superman's city? "Detroit / looks like Gotham eating Metropolis alive," the poem declares, but does so not so much to elicit pity as to introduce a toughened pride: "haven't you ever wanted to be called / by the name worn by the warrior in your belly?" the reader is intriguingly asked. Similarly, in one online poem, "Ask What I've Been," May describes his native city as "a stretch of highway littered / with windshield, // a boy picking the remains / of window from his hair."

So, for one brief night, Atlanta was the site of a literary migration, as two poets that Michigan can justly boast of descended into this southern city. How best to describe the night, and the event, and the poems? Easy. It was fun.

Brett Foster is associate professor of English at Wheaton College. The Garbage Eater, his first collection of poems, was published last year by Northwestern University Press. A new collection, Fall Run Road, recently won Finishing Line Press's chapbook competition, and is forthcoming.

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