Wild Times on the Burlington Poetry Scene

May 24th, 2011

Everette Maddox

After a long absence, poetry has returned to Burlington City Arts at the Firehouse on Church Street downtown.  Some years ago the BCA canceled its ongoing writing programs and popular First Friday reading series, an open mike poetry reading the first Friday of every month, explaining that literature was not part of its mission.  I guess graphic artist Dug Nap has persuaded BCA otherwise, with readings on alternate Wednesday evenings.  The night I was there, young people, mostly high school and college age, some twenty-somethings, read work mostly about the types of confusion that young people mostly suffer from, that is, erotic and identity issues, and were used as a sounding board by Dug for his whimsically observant narratives centered upon the types of confusion that young people mostly suffer from.  Twice the age of most of his audience, Dug establishes a comfy, inclusive atmosphere in which anyone might feel like sharing.

That same month witnessed an explosion at the monthly (more or less) reading series hosted by Michael Breiner at the Flynndog Gallery, in the space until recently occupied by the Outer Space Cafe, on Flynn Street in South Burlington.  This group usually consists of between one and two dozen men and women in their forties and fifties, but younger people come regularly, too. It’s my age cohort, so this is the reading series I patronize.  You might hear anything from rhymed couplets to slam improvisation, astringent French modernists to sweet Vermont lyricism.  You won’t be likely to see many of the area’s academic stars there – no Angela Pattons, Greg Delantys or Major Jacksons –  but many of the regular attendees are long term figures in Burlington’s “outsider” literary scene, the host not least among them.

On this particular night, one of the younger semi-regular attendees, motivated by his passionate concern for the plight of the Palestinian people, unleashed a screed about “good Jews” and “bad Jews.”  After elaborating upon this conceit at wearisome length, he began to pile up the holocaust similes.  Not long after he invoked Auschwitz as a putative model or perhaps parallel for Israeli policy, about the time I was reconsidering my determination to grit my teeth and bear it in stoic silence until the end, one of the audience stood up and asked the reader to stop so that he, the listener, would not be provoked to punch him, the reader, in the face.  That was when the yelling started.  Despite some efforts at reason and civility, it ended only when the erstwhile reader departed in a dudgeon, whether high or low I could not say, flinging at his interlocutors accusations that they could not bear the truth.  Having presented them with something inflammatory, he seemed genuinely nonplussed when they became inflamed.

After he left, there was some further discussion bearing on what had just transpired.  It mainly served the purpose of permitting everyone to stop breathing heavily.  I tried to defuse the scene by reading some pieces by Everette Maddox, the patron saint of New Orleans poetry.  On the evidence of his work, Maddox was a man without a lizard brain.  Well, he was only human, he must have been as reptilian as the rest of us, but politics, the arena in which lizards clash, seems to have been irrelevant to him.  At their best, his poems remind me of what it is like to respond to the world from the heart.  As a politically engaged poet, I hate it when the politics drives out the poetry.  Maddox seemed like a good corrective.

Sitting next to me for the three quarters of an hour or so before the episode started was an older woman.  She had a manuscript with her, and seemed to be making up her mind, as a newcomer to the group, whether she would share it.  She had a gentle, intelligent air about her, and I was very curious to find out what she had brought.  She made it through the ten or fifteen minutes of “good Jews” and “bad Jews,” but not far into the likening of Israel to Nazi Germany she quietly rose from her seat and left the building.  I would have liked to hear what she had come to say.  I hope that Michael, who seemed to find the whole thing very upsetting, reconvenes the group and that she comes back and gives it another shot.  Among all the bruised sensitivities, her loss seemed to me to be the evening’s true casualty.  It would be a shame if that injury were to be compounded by further disruption of this fine series.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 24th, 2011 at 10:14 pm and is filed under Poetry, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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