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Bookmarks: National Poetry Month

By Keith Orr

Editor's Note: As we wrap up National Poetry Month, Keith Orr (owner of Ann Arbor's Common Language Bookstore) offers insight into the importance of poetry while recommending great works to both those old and new to the genre.
I had always thought April was National Poetry Month because of two major poems which contain "April" in their opening lines: "Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote" from Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" and "April is the cruelest month" from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." Alas, the reason is far more prosaic. The Academy of American Poets wanted to play off the success of Black History Month (February) and Women's History Month (March). And the following month is April, ergo, April is National Poetry Month.

Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments

{BOLD Sappho, translated by Aaron Poochigian with a preface by Carol Ann Duffy
Penguin Classics (2009)}
Poetry is transformative. Poets play with language and create new meanings and new forms. LGBT artists, by their mere existence, are subversive. Poetry is the native language of gay people through the ages. The tradition of lesbian poetry goes back to Sappho, an ancient Greek poet from the Island of Lesbos. She lived around 600 B.C. Very little of her poetry remains, though her reputation has lived through the ages. Plato called her "the Tenth Muse," and she was widely regarded as one of antiquities finest lyric poets. There are many collections of the surviving fragments of her poetry. "Stung with Love" is a great introduction. The notes and explanations are informative and entertaining. They appear on facing pages, rather than as endnotes. Aaron Poochigian's translation aims to capture the spirit of the poetry, rather than being slave to the original form. The results are eminently readable and worth the exploration.

Howl and Other Poems

{BOLD Allen Ginsberg
City Lights}

City Lights Bookstore was founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Shortly after, the bookstore began a publishing arm focusing on the Beat Poets. In 1956 he published Allen Ginsberg's magnum opus, "Howl." San Francisco police raided the store and arrested Ferlinghetti for distributing obscenity. The trial resulted in acquittal, and established the precedent that "the slightest redeeming social importance" guarantees First Amendment protection.
From the opening line of "Howl," "I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked." Ginsberg rails against a society which worships capitalism, war and greed. Get the book and read "Howl." Read it out loud (that's good advice for any poem). Normally, I would never recommend a movie to understand a book. However, Rob Epstein's "Howl" is an excellent biography of the poem. James Franco plays a young Allen Ginsberg. Over the course of the movie the entire poem is recited, with illustrations by Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker. It's a great way to experience one of the most amazing poems of the last century.

Haiti Glass

{BOLD Lenelle Moise
City Lights (Sister Spit)}
Sixty Years after the publication of "Howl," City Lights began a collaboration with poet and author Michelle Tea to publish two to three books a year under the imprint of Sister Spit. Tea is the author of "Valencia," founder of the Radar Reading series, co-founder of the legendary Sister Spit literary tours and cultural promoter. The imprint is grabbing the attention of the LGBT literary world.
The imprint's first collection of poetry already has received a Lambda Literary nomination. Lenelle Moise is a playwright and performance artist, and it comes through in her debut collection of poetry. Alternating rhythms of hip hop and Haiti drive these poems of identity. The vodou of Haiti is a constant point of reference in her grappling of a Haitian-American identity. Even in her ode to Michael Jackson, "a pump of bony pelvis" she calls him a ghede (spirit) and zombie:
{ITAL a hypnotist
dandy
sexy spirit of corpses
vodou's ghede in sunglasses
a pump of bony pelvis
he he was as pale
as a manga superhero
as smooth as zorro
a limber zombie
singing thriller}

Prelude to Bruise

{BOLD Saeed Jones
Coffee House Press}
Another current Lambda nominee is Saeed Jones' "Prelude to Bruise." In the tradition of Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," this collection would easily fall prey to a conservative moral judgment of obscenity. "Leaves of Grass" transcended the obscene to praise an open sexuality and the beauty of same-sex love. "Prelude to Bruise' asks how we use people, and their bodies, to express ourselves.
This is as purely transformative as poetry gets. Saeed leads us through discovery of self: racial and gendered, political and familial. Powerful joyous discovery of sex in "Pretending to Drown," followed by a father's discovery of women's clothing and undergarments filled with Old Testament wrath in "Boy in a Whalebone Corset." The book is a dizzying journey through life. From "Kingdom of Trick, Kingdom of Drug":
{ITAL Four nights in, I still don't know his name. And each kiss
is the aftertaste of pills, a white cloud on the tongue. He hates
the names I give him: Tantalus, Orestes, Ganymede. I don't
need a name he says, sky-high in the shower, the birds leaking
into stains on his stomach. Orange bottle in hand,
I answer Hyacinth and Vicodin. I answer Xanax and Zephyr.}

Celebrate National Poetry Month. Grab a poem. Read it. Read it out loud. Better yet, take a hint from the gayest and most American of poets, Uncle Walt Whitman and let out a barbarous yawp:
{ITAL I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.}

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