Michele Wolf, Jennifer Michael Hecht and Priscilla Becker

Here are introductory notes from Jared on the poets:

I’m very happy to have the three wonderful poets here with us tonight – Wolf, Becker, Hecht. There’s a warmth to all their work, a sense of poetry in various ways as a therapeutic force that helps, consoles, comforts, that is in some way active in making it more possible to live and to live through difficulty. 

Michele has come up from Maryland where she teaches at The Writer's Center in Bethesda and we’re happy to have her read her on a rare appearance in the city. She name checks James Merrill in her recent book IMMERSION (she describes him as diminutive, regal, infitely wry”) and there’s something to this lineage, the way she uses a stately long line and meandering sentences full of commas and her poems take place in a deliberative present tense, navigating a space between the clarity of narrative and the mystery of language. The particular poem in which Merrill appears, called ARRANGING THE BOOKS, takes place at storied new york literary spaces like Scribner’s and the Atheneum. There’s a live reading and a sense of New York itself as a kind of bookshelf. Thus, though Michele’s poems unfurl cozily, like scarves, they give both a sense of cold darkness beyond words and the safety inside them. They concern, and are at times addressed to, people in a household, close friends, parents and children but most of all it is the physicality of language itself that acts as a consoling presence:

“That was her calling, to observe Language, to pare down its layers to get to its pulse, lost in the depths of the eddies, the spell of IRIDESCNECE, RHODODENRON, OCARINA.”

Priscilla I first met as a teacher of workshops in the unusually intimate setting of her apartment. There was something I found deeply admirable about her simply willing a certain kind of creative space into being, not waiting for it to be in some way consecrated by institutions but simply by drawing on her own openness as a reader and a friend. The particular quality of her teaching as I recall it was a confidence in the profundity that can be arrived at through play (I remember her reveling in elaborate insults in one list poem exercise) and generally a sense of trust. She would suggest exercises and then start writing herself, a pedagogical lesson I carry with me. Her latest book STORIES THAT LISTEN carries a feeling of hard looking. It reminds me of how friends who talk about meditation practice describe themselves like weather, watching negative emotions – sadness, anger – arise almost from nowhere and then have to be acknowledged as long as they remain. Poetry not so much of a powerful emotion recollected in tranquility but somehow experienced in tranquility. “Finally I have begun to die” begins one poem but it sounds calm, not anesthetized but simply allowing. In  LOGIC she writes “It was a mistake to have loved you. It is not bitterness that causes me to say so but logic, a consolation of the heartbroken… It is a mistake to call logic cold; it has no temperature at all.” The last line of this poem “It is not an emotion. It is a thought” obliquely points to the way the book demonstrates that thoughts themselves have emotional valences, Priscilla’s poems shed light on how thinking feels.

So if I might summarize we have words as consolation, process and thinking as healing, and in Jen Hecht’s WHO SAID I think we have poetry itself as a kind of supportive community. I remember this time when I was on a book tour with my wife Farrah on the west coast and she booked a reading at the Sacramento Poetry Center paired with a local poet who gave recitations of Blake and Wilfred Owen and others and it was listed on the marquee as “FARRAH FIELD and GREAT BRITISH POETRY”…  We had a laugh at the ridiculousness of these two things placed on either side of a seesaw but Jennifer in her impish way totally goes for it in this book: JENNIFER MICHAEL HECHT and ICONIC POEMS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE”. So maybe it turns the seesaw into a springboard. Many of the poems are epically playful in this way, taking famous poems as spaces in which to play, like riding a bucking bronco and the book is a total rodeo. 

Blake’s Tyger becomes spider and thus we have “Spider spider, knitting white against the blackness of the night what wacky-strange geometry could frame our sweet ass symmetry?"

"Carlos, keep calm, love" becomes:

"Carlos, me, stop flipping out."

“no, love
in the daylight, is always sad,
sad, Carlos, my boy,
but tell it to nobody,
nobody knows nor shall know.”

Is transformed into a humble but compassionate rejoinder:

“We need to keep drinking tea or wine and tell each other the one thing we don’t have to trance out to hear:  I was there. It sucked. It was insane, the things I said to myself to stay sane…

Come over and drink coffee or beer with us and tell us. 

There’s certainly plenty of humor here (in that understated “it sucked”) but what’s happening is humane in a really important way (I mean, given that Jennifer also was just writing a essay book about suicide and poetry I know she’s talking about something real and threatening about the solitude of writing and answering it with invitation, friendship.) It seems really sane; I admire the book’s groundedness.