POETIC LICENSE: The Academy of American Poets “Poetry & The Creative Mind” Benefit

By Victoria Rowan

Who knew that Joan Baez wrote poetry? Or that Wynton Marsalis hates to fly and reads poetry aloud–loudly!–in the car to keep his brothers awake while driving cross-country? Or that Chip Kidd could sing?

Yes, my best beloved literary trivia junkies, I learned these and many other fun facts at The Academy of American Poets’ annual benefit, “Poetry & The Creative Mind” (April 1st, 2009). But lest that last comment sound disparaging, it IS worth mentioning in this town glutted with special cause galas that this one is a standout for being genuinely FUN to attend, not a grim act of duty. The organizers are savvy enough to keep all the boostering or boorish thank-yous that can make these events so dull to a tasteful minimum, and instead they save most of the hall rental time for a one-time-only show of unpredictable surprises. In 1996, The Academy of American Poets reclaimed April from T.S. Eliot’s famous dictum that “April is the cruelest month” by dubbing it National Poetry Month, now a copy-cat tradition world-wide. Among the non-profit’s other poetry-publicizing stunts has been distributing free copies of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (with that caustic first line) at post offices while the procrastinators were dashing to meet that ides of April deadline. And for the last 7 years, this annual performance (priced democratically $40-75) and gala has helped bankroll a variety of other AAP community serving activities. (See more on their website, Poets.org.)

The evening’s subtext is to demonstrate how poetry inspires, delights and matters to distinguished creatives of all stripes. The rules for all guest stars are: pick a handful of poems by dead American poets that are of personal significance. This year’s readers (in addition to the above) ranged from humorist and NPR game show panelist Roy Blount, Jr. to quirky starlet Maggie Gyllenhaal to composer Steve Reich to Nobel-Prize winner in medicine Harold Varmus. Due to cancellations from Mia Farrow and Zadie Smith, rules were bent to allow some poet luminaries to infiltrate the ranks including Rose Styron, former Poet Laureate Mark Strand, and Pulitzer Prize winner Jorie Graham.

The setup is that the whole bunch troop onstage (at the newly rebuilt) Alice Tully Hall, where they sit until their turn to read. (This not being the Oscars, presenters looked like they actually dressed themselves from their own closets without the help of a stylist. The sartorial standouts: Rose Styron in an electric orange silk mandarin collared jacket; Wynton Marsalis always sharp in a cufflinked, royal purple windowpane shirt to match his vibrant purple tie; Chip Kidd in signature retro dapper tweed suit, brown tie with cream polka dots and a cream pocket square to match; Joan Baez sported striped socks with her patent leather Dansko clogs.) The audience then not only gets to see the stars read poetry, but see how they react to it as well. Wynton Marsalis was visibly moved by Kidd’s reading of John Updike’s poems. The hall seats a thousand, but the evening takes on a cozy salon-like feeling, with each reading as much to their fellow presenters as to the rest of us. The enthusiastic reactions of the non-poets on stage loosed up the audience to express their appreciation more volubly than at the average poetry reading where a broodingly silent reception is considered a sign of respect.

Since the presenters knew that whatever they chose to read could earn them unwanted armchair psychoanalysis, many had fun teasing or foiling the audience in this regard. Gyllenhaal set herself up by acknowledging with one of her inscrutable smiles that she had spent a couple years in therapy before she read W.H. Auden’s, “In Memory of Sigmund Freud.” Ever drily irreverent, Blount read “The Ax-Helve” to commemorate a high school teacher’s obsession with Robert Frost. Varmus broke the rules to read a selection of sexy and witty 17 Century English poets John Donne, Andrew Marvell and Robert Herrick (whom he resembles in profile and mustache–is that why he read four Herricks?).

Poetry’s musical side was well represented. Reich read the poems of William Carlos Williams he has set to music. Wynton Marsalis gave robust feeling and syncopation to the interpretation of every poem he read, especially Charles Bukowski’s, “To the whore who stole my poems.”

The only false note was Joan Baez reading some of her own poetry (which even the decorated pro poets didn’t do and made everyone squirmy) but she redeemed herself with a rendition of the song she made famous: “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” (an Alfred Hayes poem set to music by Earl Robinson) with Marsalis adding an trumpet improvisation to her guitar.

But the Best in Show award for entertainment value goes to Chip Kidd. His opener was an excerpt from Dr. Seuss’s, “If I Ran the Zoo” which he apparently sent to Barack Obama once he got to the White House. (I’m sure Barack appreciated the sentiment, but did he understand that he was reading anapestic tetrameter?) To introduce three Updike poems, Kidd mentioned that he is from the same town in Pennsylvania as Updike, (whose father had been Kidd’s father’s math teacher) and part of his awe for the writer was because he “could not understand how Shillington was such a muse for so much of his work. It would be like being an artist saying, ‘I’m a great artist and my muse is beige.’” Kidd closed by proving that Emily Dickenson’s poems can be easily set to “The Yellow Rose of Texas” by singing her “Because I could not stop for Death” to the melody, bringing the house down.

The evening was also a book release party for Poem in your Pocket: 200 Poems to Read And Carry (The Academy of American Poets/Abrams Image, New York). The binding is a clever innovation; the cover opens conventionally to reveal a pad of poems, each page being a tearsheet. In the introduction (printed on the inside cover) by current U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, she discusses the wealth that is locked up in a poem, “In a way, you can’t spend a poem even if you want to. As opposed to money–which seems intent upon getting out of your pocket as though it were a feral animal–a poem settles in. When I say ‘pocket’ here, I mean ‘mind.’…You don’t ever have to spend your poem to get the good from it–and by ’spend’ I mean ’share’ it. And actually, I recommend hoarding it, at least for some time, perhaps forever. On some level poems can, of course, do good works and bind us together.” And last week in Alice Tully Hall, the rich poetry buffet presented there made the magic bond of poetry delicious–and precious–to everyone all over again.

Victoria C. Rowan has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Moscow Times, National Public Radio and many others. A longtime producer of literary events in New York City, she was the Artistic Programmer for the 92nd St. Y/Unterberg Poetry Center’s 2006-7 literature series featuring the world’s greatest living writers. Since leaving Mediabistro.com, where she developed its nationwide school for media professionals, she has founded her own enterprise, Ideasmyth.com, which won a 2008 DailyCandy “Sweetest Thing” Award. She is also the writing expert for Ask.com.

Last 5 posts by Victoria Rowan

Posted on 08 Apr 2009 at 1:27pm
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