My friend Ruda Dauphin was involved and she graciously invited me to attend this festive gala meant to emphasize “poetry’s important place in our culture, and its impact on the lives of readers.” Her title at the Academy is Artistic Coordinator and she also curates events for Irish Arts Center.
Chip Kidd, considered one of the greatest book jacket designers, was charming and funny and a perfect master of ceremonies. Jennifer Benka, Executive Director of the Academy spoke briefly about the power of poetry. She mentioned the Academy’s online Poem-a-Day, which presents original, previously unpublished poems by talented poets throughout the week and classic poems on the weekends and reaches 300,000 poetry lovers daily.
I know that’s the first thing I read in the morning on my iPhone.
The show kicked off with an impressive poem by Ashley Gong, a 16-year old selected as the 2014 National Student Poet by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. The daughter of first generation immigrants from China, she is a student at Newtown High School in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. When she introduced her poem, “Preamble” as “an early poem” the audience laughed. “Well, relatively early,” she added humorously. Here’s an excerpt:
we the members (Hailie, Justin, and I) under this sagging tenement roof
the eaves drooping like disgraced willows on the cusp of giving in.
in order to form a more perfect family picture you know… the one that rests above the mantel its image darkened by soot and wilting from neglect (you know, every time I see that picture, with your hand holding mine, I want to laugh at my naiveté).
From there an illustrious and eclectic group of legendary actors, dancers, artists, musicians, and public figures got up to read their favorite poems.
Holly Hunter, yes Holly Hunter of The Piano and Broadcast News, did a wonderful reading of Mary Oliver’s “If I Wanted A Boat” her sensuous southern voice thick with intelligence and comprehension. Here’s an excerpt:
What kind of life is it always to plan
and do, to promise and finish, to wish
for the near and the safe? Yes, by the
heavens, if I wanted a boat I would want
a boat I couldn’t steer.
Saying that she’d rather dance the poems than read them, Judith Jamison, the former artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, did a beautiful reading of Conrad Aiken’s “Dancing Adairs.”
Nick Cannon, host of MTV’s Nick Cannon Presents Wild ‘N Out and author of a new collection of poems for children, Neon Aliens Ate My Homework, read “Dreams” by Langston Hughes, a poem he said, he learned from his grandmother.
Anita Lo, an acclaimed chef and owner of Annisa, a restaurant in Greenwich Village, read three wonderful poems about food. Best among them was a real tour de force called “Fruit Cocktail in Light Syrup” by Amy Gerstler. Here’s an excerpt:
colorlessness, its lack of connection to anything
living, (like tree, seed or leaf) seemed
cautionary, sad. A bowl of soupy, faded, funeral
fruit. No more nourishing than a child’s
finger painting, masquerading as happy
appetizer, fruit cocktail insisted on pretending
everything was ok. Eating it meant you embraced
tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.
It meant you’d pretend semblances,
no matter how pathetic, were real, and that
when things got dicey, you’d spurn the truth..
Singer/songwriter Sam Beam of Iron & Wine read poems by William Stafford and sang a beautiful self-penned song.
Debra Winger, the deep voiced and soulful actress, so memorably the star of Terms of Endearment, rocked the house with an indelible reading of “Freak-Out” by Lucia Perillo. Here’s an excerpt:
Mine have occured in empty houses
down whose dark paneling I dragged my fingernails—
Though big-box stores have also played their parts,
as well as entrances to indistinct commercial buildings
cubes of space between glass yellowing like onion skin,
making my freak-out obscure
Artist Julie Mehretun read Allen Ginsberg’s “Five A.M.,” She said that it inspired a group of drawings that represented a new phase in her artistic work. Here’s an excerpt:
The muses drawing breath for you? God?
Nah, don’t believe it, you’ll get entangled in Heaven or Hell –
Guilt power, that makes the heart beat wake all night
flooding mind with space, echoing through future cities, Megalopolis or
Cretan village, Zeus’ birth cave Lassithi Plains – Otsego County
farmhouse, Kansas front porch?
Buddha’s a help, promises ordinary mind no nirvana –
coffee, alcohol, cocaine, mushrooms, marijuana, laughing gas?
Nope, too heavy for this lightness lifts the brain into blue sky
at May dawn when birds start singing on East 12th street –
Where does it come from, where does it go forever?
Then it was Gloria Steinem’s turn to enchant the crowd. Clearly she is a great lover of poetry. She thanked the audience and the Academy for making poetry accessible to so many and went on to read Marge’s Piercy’s “The low road,” which she called a great piece about “organizing.” Here’s an excerpt:
Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund raising party.
She then read Alice Walker’s “New Face,” which she said she sends “to all my new lovers.” Here’s the poem in its entirety.
i have learned not to worry about love;
but to honor it’s coming
with all my heart.
To examine the dark mysteries of the blood
with headless heed and swirl,
to know the rush of feelings
swift and flowing
The source appears to be
some inexhaustible spring
within out twin and triple selves;
The new face i turn up to you
no one else on earth
Steinem ended with a poem by Robin Morgan, author of Sisterhood is Powerful, called “A Worm of Robins” about aging and death.
Vanessa Williams was also a crowd pleaser with her voluptuous and passionate reading of “‘What Do Wome Want'” by Kim Addonizio and Maya Angelous’ “Phenomenal Woman.”
The great Kris Kristofferson, songwriter, actor, winner of the Golden Globe for his role in A Star is Born—and one mustn’t forget his performance in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore—rounded out the night with a incredible performance of his song (and Janis Joplin’s hit) “Me and Bobbie McGee.” Wow.
The crowd responded, at the end of the 90-minute presentation, with a standing ovation. Sitting behind me was Saeed Jones, literary editor of Buzzfeed and author of an acclaimed 2014 collection called Prelude to Bruise, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Somehow that was perfect. The crowd was filled with many poetry luminaries, poetry lovers, and those who support the Academy’s mission to promote and appreciate contemporary American poetry.