Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Best American Poetry, Live in New York City

I’ve come here on foot, through the rush hour’s living crowd. Hundreds of thousands of feet headed in all directions, tens of thousands crossing the Brooklyn Bridge (which looms above Brooklyn Ferry), many more shuffling their way to the subway, which spews me out on Astor Place.

When I arrive on 12th Street, at the New School auditorium, I find a half-dozen people in the 400-seat space. As the event—and it does feel like an event, an important one-off, a poetry fireworks show—draws closer, more people enter. There are maybe 50 in the room as we come within fifteen minutes of start time.

The Tishman Auditorium (named for one of New York City’s lordly developers) has walls and a ceiling like the inside of a giant clamshell. A modest opera production could be staged here, and in fact the evening, at least at this early point, has the dignified and semi-formal aura of a contemporary opening night of, say, La Boheme. I suspect that some of the people I’m watching are some of tonight’s poets. I half-recognize a few faces from my Facebook connections. In this I am probably like many of the more obscure poets on hand tonight. I have these tenuous connections to people famous only to people who care more about the wider world of poetry than about their local poetry scenes. I wish I had an illustrated program.

Members of this group enter like anyone else and sit in the first three rows, upon which the polite audience haven’t dared infringe. Among them are Lucie Brock-Broido, Mark Doty, Cornelius Eady (a poet-cum-R & B singer, whom I’ve met through mutual poet acquaintances and brought to our college to perform), Yusef Komunyakaa, Cate Marvin, Eileen Myles, Afaa Michael Weaver, and Sean Thomas Dougherty. Sean is both a natural poet and a poet who identifies (much of the time) with the town where he lives. He is also a friend and poet whose work I’ve been lucky enough to publish in the journal I co-edit, but I haven’t told him I’m attending. These leading lights are his first community now, the national poetic prominenti, and I’m guessing that, although he might want to, tonight he won’t be able to share the time and thoughts with anyone outside that circle, as he might on a slow summer night in Erie.

The house lights have come up, and now the audience is a legitimate crowd. They embody the oddity of a major poetry event. There is buzz, but it is subdued. Some of the people in attendance are true fans; some are aspiring national poets; some are curious passersby; and some are students whom professors have asked or bribed to come. In all they number now around 150. Set in front of black drapes, stage left of a podium and facing it an oblique angle, are two rows of high-end white plastic chairs. The anthology editor, David Lehman—himself an accomplished poet, as if often the case with anthology editors—appears and walks just in front of the stage, where he talks with some of the contributors. Lehman is an avuncular man in a suit and tie. He wears black horn-rimmed glasses, and smiles continually. Most of the poets are glamorous, attractive, well-dressed: put together. They look as though they belong in the celebrity culture of twenty-first-century New York City. A few of them, like Cate Marvin, Mark Doty and D. Nurkse, live within New York’s ambit, but many actually spend most of the time in less grand towns where they teach creative writing. In those and other hamlets more remote, the poets who show up to read at local venues often appear to be in the midst of the struggles they portray in their poetry. Of course, I’m generalizing, but I wonder how well we’ll come to know these readers. Will this be a case, as it often is on local scenes, of the reading as an affordable middle-class evening out? As a chance to connect with other poets? For tonight’s performers it can’t be only these possibilities. Selection for this anthology can make a respected poet a national poet, one who is invited to read and teach for good money and on a regular basis; one whose poetry will be read all around the country and, in some cases, around the world.

It’s after 7 p. m., the official start time, and by now the auditorium is filled, and the poets have taken their places. A quick look at them on stage reveals that this is a thoroughly middle-aged bunch: the youngest, Valzhyna Mort, is 33; and the eldest, Komunyakaa, 67. Lehman takes the mic, jokes with the audience, and discusses the history of the anthology back to its inception in 1988, mocking the assertion that poetry is a dying art. The poets smile along, making unheard quips from their white chairs. Many know one another from AWP conferences and the national workshop and reading circuits. Tonight they will, no doubt, break bread, share wine, and enjoy their status. Any group of poets in their spot should. In his introduction Lehman discusses both the news of his guest editor (Terrence Hayes), who has just been named a MacArthur Fellow, and the changes in the anthology (greater diversity and taboo content) over the years. Without much further ado, he introduces the first poet in the alphabetical list.1

As the program unfolds, the its nature surprises me. A number of poets manifest the impact both of spoken word and of local scenes on our celebrated poets. Joel Dias-Porter, who reminds others that he is a. k. a. DJ Renegade, recites from under a backward, angled baseball cap the epitome of a jazz poem called “Elegy Indigo.” Smooth all the way through. Natalie Diaz follows him to a chorus of cheers from the audience. She intones her poem “These Hands, If Not Gods” in a class spoken-word style. In Kangol and bling, Sean Thomas Dougherty takes the mic like a warrior, and chants “The Blues is a Verb,” a poem about East Cleveland, in which the poet’s street sensibility, eye for the detail of local life, and working-class loyalties are on full display. Before his reading begins, Ross Gay passes out figs to everyone in the audience. They are good purple figs—At least mine was sweet—that the audience eats without any apparent hesitation. If they can’t trust a poet, who can they trust? Gay seems to enjoy interacting with the audience as much as he seems to enjoy reading his playful, weighty poem “To a Fig Tree on 9th and Christian.” In his comfort at the podium, and in his rapport with the audience, he resembles any confident regular at a local coffee house. Le Hinton’s “No Doubt About It (I Gotta Get Another Hat)” is the second poem of the night to draw inspiration from an obscure poet’s life, in this case from the life of Baltimore poet named Chris Toll. Patrick Rosal reads a great performance piece entitled “You Cannot Go to the God of Love with Your Two Legs,” and before he does gives a big shout-out to New Jersey.

Most of the other poets on the bill are polished performers. Major Jackson deftly deadpans “OK Cupid,” a masterpiece of associative thought and a paragon of the list form often heard on the local stage. Mark Doty recalls Woody Allen, if Woody Allen were genuinely genteel and wrote poetry. He opens with a shtick about the poets’ screwing up the alphabetical order of performance, and segues into his equally funny poem, “Deep Lane.” Cornelius Eady nearly whispers his poems, as though he is sharing secrets with the audience. He is urbane and witty, and his poem “Overturned” smolders. Cate Marvin is a different story. A master of wry anger, as in her poem for this occasion, “An Etiquette for Eyes,” at 45 she’s a young master, and is deferential to the company. But, dressed in black, looking the part of a super-sophisticated hipster, she delivers with confidence. (About the poem itself, I notice that it rhymes “you” and “blue” a lot, and that it rests upon many of the same techniques (internal or buried rhyme, for example) that I hear from skilled but unsung poets around the country.) In her prefatory comments, Valzhyna Mort returns to the idea that reports of poetry’s death have been exaggerated. “Every poet,” she declares, “is a bit of a necrophiliac,” so she’s glad poetry is a dying art. The concern for poetry’s demise is, it should be understood, a product of critical discourse and not a reality on the ground. These poets must know this, because most of them, most poets acclaimed and obscure, spend a significant amount of time on that ground, performing for small crowds in small communities. Mort is a native of Belarus, writing remarkable poems in English. Her poem tonight, “Sylt I,” demonstrates her tremendous skill and humor, and, like a number of these other “best” poems, shows that sly humor has become a staple of contemporary American poetry. Eileen Myles breezes through “Paint Me a Penis,” a clever poem about gender and sexuality. She is as self-assured as any poet on stage, and maybe as any poet could be. And with nine black poets looking on, a white poet, Jon Sands, performs with the ease of a winning politician a nonce-form poem about race and racial injustice. He performs it with such calm power that the several black male poets on stage, themselves masters of calmly powerful poems about race, exchange quizzical looks as Sands walks off. The moment and the presence of nine black poets among the evening’s twenty-four are another reminder of how black American (not just African American, but also Caribbean American) culture, which dominates the spoken word and hip-hop landscape, has shaped contemporary American poetry.

When the reading ends and Lehman dispenses thanks, the poets remain on the proscenium, shooting photos of each, of the audience, of themselves. The house lights rise. Members of the audience approach the poet-celebrities. I approach the stage to congratulate Sean. He tells me how nervous, how terrified of performing for this occasion he was, until he realized that he actually knew a few of the poets and had even read with one or two before. He also tells me that he needs a smoke. It’s been a long day of teaching and now taking notes, so I follow him out, to the sidewalk. On 12th Street we chat with passing well-wishers, performers and some of Sean’s old friends. I was wrong. No matter how national they might be now, he and the other poets have time to talk. This is how readings usually work. They are performances, but also gatherings of people who know each other well enough to share passions, to talk shop, to catch up, and now and then to lay the groundwork of serious relationships.

Next month Sean will read on another national stage, at the Dodge Poetry Festival, but life is calling him from glory. His long-time girlfriend is ill, and their young daughters need him around. He’s announced this current swing as a farewell tour. And he’s thinking of quitting the pool hall he manages, going for a full-time job as an instructor to autistic children. He’ll gig, but never again on this scale. Mostly, he’ll write and stay put in Erie, home.



1 At this point, with apologies to Sean Thomas Dougherty and others who may have blogged about the event, I present a brief description of the poets and their performances, for those who may never have seen them. Others have and will no doubt present something like this list, but here I am merely following the draft of this essay I wrote on the spot. 

2At a reading I took part in in 2013, Donna Masini told the audience that she was revising the poem she was about to read at the bus stop on the way over. Comments like hers are commonplace at readings. At times they reflect a poet’s striving for perfection; at other times they suggest the kind of haphazard composition that can and does sometimes drive more seasoned poets away from open mics.


Friday, October 11, 2013

Holding It Down in New Orleans

African American Shakespear (Shake) is a regional slam champion, who has appeared on HBO's Def Poetry Jam, performing a poem about the aftermath of Katrina.

Katrina is a dividing line in Shake's life as poet. He started spitting (What many spoken-word poets call performing) five years before the storm hit, has hosted events for over a decade, and when the storm came he remained, "to hold it down." As I spoke with Shake I realized that poetry in America is mostly about the people who hold it down, whether that be as hosts of series; as poetry instructors to kids in first grade or juvi hall; as semi-anonymous small mag editors; or, yes, as "famous" poets who ply their trade at university auditoriums and in week-long workshops.

A fiction writer once said to me, "When you say famous poet, I don't know what you mean." This is what sets almost all poets apart. We may chase fame, but our fame is not fame as most people understand it. Fame for a poet is having a very few people in the world nod when they hear your name and maybe remember a few lines from something you've written. Fame may also come in the publication of a book, an enterprise that sometimes runs counter to the concerns of the poetry performer, who, maybe especially in New Orleans, lives for the instant connection with other people that almost every poet I've interviewed has identified as the ultimate goal of showing up on the scene.

Fame in the form of book publication (and prizes and accolades from other poets who publish books and win prizes) offers the chance to travel and connect, through performances and book signings, with more people than you could in your hometown. To hear the crowd punctuate your speech with laughter or "ummm"s. For the spoken-word poet who spends most of his time on the scene, holding it down, meeting and relating to other poets and audience members, the imperative to hone not only the poem, but to hone the performance of the memorized poem, may militate against the isolation any poet needs to produce a full-length manuscript. And then the publishers of spoken word-style poetry are relatively few, often poets themselves on a local scene, who decide to put together an anthology of poets they know from that scene. So when a poet like Shake does publish, the reach of that publication will not be anywhere near comparable to the reach of W. W. Norton or Pitt Poetry Series or Cooper Canyon book. His fame remains the griot's.

So here's Shake on a Tuesday night, hosting an open mic in the Seventh Ward, at Sweet Lorraine's Jazz Club, where he's held it down for over a decade. On Who Dat Poets, a clearinghouse site for spoken-word New Orleans, the listing for True Poetry Tuesday's says the open mic starts at eight. "Doors open at 7." It's 9:15. For two hours now I've been sitting at the bar next to a man whose attempts at jokes the fifty-something owner/bartender, Paul, ignores, while he tends to his cronies, a group of African American businessmen and civic leaders who have trickled in over the last two hours. They've been sitting in the otherwise empty club, across from the bar, sampling wine from the many bottles Paul's opened for them, and talking everything from the Federal Government shutdown to a possible trade of the Atlanta Falcon's aging tight end. They converse the way an outsider might expect a group of middle-aged black men from New Orleans to talk: sharply, jokingly, in the nettled satisfaction of one another's company. Among them is a judge whom Paul, with a smile, calls "Your Honor."

They've been joined lately by two young women, who may or may not be twenty-one. They've come for the open mic, though neither of them, I learn, has come to perform. They've moved to New Orleans from Alabama and Mississippi. They simply love poetry, the way it allows them to understand what other people are thinking. They've come to identify and to be moved by the flow, which begs the river metaphor.

Sweet Lorraine's is just blocks from said river, on the border of the Seventh Ward and the Faubourg Marigny/Bywater neighborhoods, on a strip that is the city's hub of spoken word venues. For years before Katrina, the Marigny had itself been a border neighborhood populated by the working class of New Orleans and the artists, asthetes and aspirants who could not afford the Quarter and anyway wanted to avoid its constant flood of tourists. Bywater, a. k. a. the Upper Ninth Ward, was, prior to Katrina, a working-class neighborhood bordering on some of the roughest neighborhoods in the city, what Shake would later describe as "the 'hood," meaning the Lower Ninth Ward and the various sweetly-named projects ("Desire," "Florida) to which it used to be home. It is now, among several neighborhoods that might pretend to the title, the hipster capital of New Orleans.

Two or three times, Paul, watching me wait, has stepped out onto St. Claude Avenue, to check for Shake, who might, he's told me, be hanging outside. As I'm about to give up, and embark on the long (and possibly hazardous) walk back through the Marigny and across the Quarter, Shake arrives, his Tone Loc-esque baritone filling the room. A chorus of "What up, Shake?"s greets him, as he slaps backs, claps shoulders and clasps hands with the assembled brethren. As Shake makes his way toward the stage, Paul superfluously informs me that there goes Shake. I leave my barstool, to introduce myself.

While the front of the club, including its storefront, is entirely non-descript, dominated by two giant flat-screen televisions, the back is a fully-equipped, even flashy, jazz club done up in blue, with a raised platform stage, and on it a shiny black drum set behind a transparent Lucite screen, flanked by a gleaming black piano, and fronted by four mic stands in a neat row across. On the ground are twenty glass-top bistro tables in two L-shaped rows filling the space in the front of the stage and then back into a semi-room invisible from the bar. On a good night, like a night of the Southern Fried Poetry Slam, the house must absolutely rock. (It strikes me that I met very few slam poets, or really any poets at all under forty during my time in the Bay Area.) It's here that Shake introduces himself and launches into an explanation of why the scene isn't what it used to be.

First, the hurricane scattered the old spoken-word guard, those who came up in the Nineties and early Aughts. In the storm's wake, in a time of gradual gentrification (read "whiteification") of many parts of the "chocolate city," open mics began popping up all over, splintering whatever coherent spoken-word scene remained. Shake calls many of the new crop, like the 2013 national champion New Orleans slam team, "collegiate." His description implies that they don't have the deep connection to the New Orleans he's never left. They may represent the city now, but they don't really know it.

Shake has promised to spit, but fifteen minutes later, when it's obvious no one else will be showing up, he suggests we step outside. "We" are seven, including two other spoken-word artists, Lost Soul and Numsko (who tells me he's sure that while I'll find lots of numbskulls out there, he'll be the one and only Numsko). There too is a musician named Mario, a diminutive young man who lives just next door; another quiet woman in her thirties, who, it turns out, is a spoken-word poet from Alexandria, Louisiana; and the two young ladies from Alabama and Mississippi, the taller of whom is a model and has begun talking with Shake about her own and his appearances in Hollywood films. (Shake appeared in the Spike Lee documentary about post-Katrina New Orleans, When the Levees Broke.)

Cars rush by on St. Claude. A man leads his young son by the hand toward Esplanade Avenue. A few others come and go on foot and on the ubiquitous bicycle. A few of the middle-aged men inside swing open the front door and walk to their cars. There's plenty of noise, but we are a circle, and Shake asks Lost Soul to kick it, which, as you can see below, we all wind up doing.

Click this link to see Shake, Numsko, and Lost Soul performing on St. Claude Avenue. 






Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"Hate the Fleur de Lis."


He spoke with the intensity of a bright, driven young man who had just lost his father a day or two before. He spoke about poetry and how poetry is a way we make ourselves who we want to be. And he spoke about the big lie: that New Orleans as we outsiders see it is an elaborate charade, perpetrated by a dominant (white) class and a subservient (black) class who have been acculturated to believe that they are less worthy of personhood than the people whose money and power depends upon their labor and creativity. The story of colonialism. An old story. At least a story many of us who non-New Orleanians would like to believe is an old story whose ending in the United States is close at hand. Kataalyst Alcindor believes otherwise.

Ehren "Kataalyst" Alcindor

Kataalyst is a twenty-six year-old poet, and in 2013 was host of the annual, traveling competition called the Southern Fried Poetry Slam, in his adopted city of New Orleans (He is originally from the cross-river factory town of Marrero, Louisiana). 

When we spoke about the Southern Fried Slam and about the New Orleans poetry scene more generally, the young poet talked about how difficult it was to put to good use the history that so many of this city live with every day in rituals and customs designed to keep the dead ever present, the Ifa' deities behind the saints forever marching in. It is a lived history, but one, as Kataalyst sees it, from which too few people draw the lessons that could help them reject the way things still are in New Orleans. The people of other Southern cities had done it, or at least tried to, but not the people of his city. New Orleans has remained locked inside the caste system in which white Krewes on Mardi Gras floats still hand strings of beads to outstretched second-line white hands, while they hurl the same beads and all manner of objects as hard as they can at the black faces in the same crowd. These Krewes (with a "K") are the brainchildren of the Klan and the descendants of those who branded runaway slaves (whose ears they also severed) with the fleur de lis, the symbol ubiquitous in the present-day Crescent City. "Hate the fleur de lis," he said. "Always hate the fleur de lis." 

When Kataalyst spoke of his people, he meant black people. When I asked him if black people were the only ones who made up genuine New Orleans, who could understand the need for mental liberation resulting from centuries of mental abuse and inculcated self-hatred and shame, he said with some hesitation that they might not be, but that, basically, he was talking about the black people, the African Americans of New Orleans. He did not, however, claim that only black poets could be legitimate New Orleans poets. His network of poets included many races, and was, at bottom, a league of the conscious.  

***

I believe that, even when they can't express themselves in unrehearsed language with the spontaneous insight, passion and precision that Kataalyst can, all poets or people who aspire to be poets understand the power of the simulacrum. The city, the performance, the poem, even the poet are simulacra--constructs, projections, fantasies. To recognize the simulacrum, the charade, the big lie, is the work of the poet, whose weapons are language, simulacra themselves, and the willingness to poke holes in the facade. To paraphrase Kataalyst, we have to speak something before it comes into being. I would add that speak it publicly we have to pretend that the world, the stage, the poem and we ourselves are something that we are not, but would like to be. To understand this imperative is to begin understanding what moves people toward poetry, poets toward other poets, and, may we hope, New Orleans and its people toward belief in a better simulacrum and a better reality.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Desperation on St. Charles Avenue

Another tropical storm skittered past New Orleans this weekend.

I felt its fingertips on my back as I walked down St. Charles Avenue past a plaque commemorating the erstwhile St. Charles Theater. Built in 1835, it was home to a grand opera. The first opera performed at the St. Charles was Bellini's Norma, a tale of desperation if ever there was one.


Poydras Street, looking toward the site of the St. Charles Theater, 
in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina


There's a sweet desperation about New Orleans, the kind that leads lovers (all kinds of lovers) to sacrifice themselves for a lover, an ideal or an end to pain. It's the kind of desperation in which a poetic soul delights, a feeling that you are floating alone through life but will try to reach the world even if the world has not come looking for you. It's the kind of desire that pulls people to poetry, a desperate desire to express longings and hopes that could otherwise destroy them, that could fade away before brief lives conclude, and that will certainly fade away in the end. 

When Katrina hit and flooded eighty per cent of the city, the desperation that anyone with an eye and heart could see and feel in the vagrant clinging to his bottle in a doorway on Dauphine Street, or in the furious street tap of a little boy and a little girl from the other side of  Louis Armstrong Park for tourists' coins, or the tourists' hooch-fueled quest for exhilaration that could make them feel alive beyond their ordinary days, or the ecstatic, virtuosi performance of a jazz combo in an obscure bar on the far end of Bourbon Street, or the young poet's concentrated stare at her pad, on a bench in Washington Square off Esplanade--all of it came to a head in this city gone temporarily missing. 

In Hearing Sappho in New Orleans, her lyrical rumination on New Orleans poetry post-Katrina, Ruth Salvaggio proposes that 

Missing New Orleans means entering into desire. It means that we step into the long lyric call of poetry, because what goes missing is precisely what ignites the lyric voice of longing that keeps securing the bonds of our relations. The conundrum of desire is that what goes missing marks the limits of emptiness and fullness, severance and relation. We know what it means to miss New Orleans because we are creatures of longing.

I take the "we" to be all of us, anyone who has ever wanted to connect with someone else through the word, especially the word set to music as it has so often been in the Big Easy. 

Other cities coddle you. In San Francisco the warm sun soothes longing. On a recent trip there I could feel my worries, my longing, my desire to report on the emotional lives of human beings, evaporate in the gentle rays, wash away in the cool Pacific waves, be in fact pacified. The California sun can almost make you believe that you will never die. 

In New Orleans the sun drives you on, and even the remnant breezes of a merciful storm hit you with a thick sense that you've got to make some sort of noise before the heat or the river or the po' boys and pralines or the memories of pain put you under. You could be the frat boy crawling from pub to pub, the saxophonist from what used to be the Upper Ninth Ward, the jilted hipster dodging the unshaven men in dirty tee shirts and Saints caps on Canal, the family from Chicago in their Walmart-bought whites getting palms read in Jackson Squre, the hundred opposing intentions heading into the Quarter, the Creole aristocrat tossing pebbles into Bayou St. John, to count the decades gone, or the high school student riding the streetcar to the end of St. Charles, imagining something Uptown that once she discovers will make all this longing worthwhile. When you are here, you are desperate, and you find yourself inching toward desperate words. Poetry needs desperation, and desperation needs poetry. They live side by side here, as the city and its people will tell. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Boring Readings are Not Always Bad

A recent photo of me at a poetry reading got me thinking.



Many poets have told me privately that sitting through poetry readings can be tough. Dull. Boring. Inane.

I would say the same thing, but even a tedious reading experience, like the walk through a non-descript part of town, can be good for the soul.

The fact is that I was not sleeping during the reading pictured above. It was mostly a terrific reading, and I was actually concentrating--or, on occasion, during lesser moments, trying to concentrate--on what the readers were saying and how they were saying it. I was submitting to other people's thoughts in a way that, at least when they aren't shuffling papers or checking their text messages and email, audience members do at poetry readings.

How rare that is: total submission to the workings of someone else's mind, in a public setting, for an extended period of time. Contemplation in company. The suppression of one's own desire to express anything other than approval or indifference.

Boredom at readings happens for different reasons. Sometimes the poetry being performed is boring, dull, inane. More often, however, it gives us something valuable to consider, Marianne Moore's "place for the genuine," even when the poetry is crude or unsophisticated. When the former is true, boredom can move poets and others rapidly to introspection, the opposite of public participation; or it can lead poet/audience members to reflect on what to avoid in their own poetry. When the latter is true, we can drift into contemplation, and find it difficult to stay with the next poem or next poet simply because we are preoccupied. This is an eternal conflict for many people, especially for writers: how to appreciate a revelation and still remain in the moment, remain outwardly focused.

Of course, poets may be bored by readings simply because they have had to leave the orbits of their egos. They could hardly, after all, be poets without egos. At readings they are forced to listen closely to people they have not necessarily chosen to hear, particularly if the event in question includes an open mic. Listening closely, or at least trying to, is an exercise in humility, which tempers ego and leads to greater compassion.

So are we necessarily complaining about poetry readings or about certain poets when we say were bored by particular readings? Maybe. Or maybe we're just complaining about having to do our work. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Sitting Down with Poets of the Bay: Episode 2

The moment I arrive, the reading is over. I've stayed too long at coffee in Alameda with my college roommate. Life is short, and the nature of the Lunch Poems series is uncertain. Still, I've driven out to Berkeley, albeit too late to hear members of the faculty and staff read. As the audience chats with the readers and begins to file out, I approach someone who appears to be in charge, and ask if he is Robert Hass, the great poet who curates the series. I should know what Hass looks like, but I do not. He is not Hass. But he is a librarian and can point me to a small man making his deliberate, downcast way to the door. He appears to be, in the words of Emanuel Carnevali, a hurried man.

Alexander Givental is a professor of mathematics. Like the other readers, he is not a poet per se. When I ask to speak with him, he eyes me suspiciously, explains, in a fairly thick Russian accent, that he is on his way to class, but could talk for a few minutes. In the meantime the librarian continues corraling readers with whom I might speak. As I'll need to do a lot, I diplomatically move from one to the other, explaining my project and enlisting their help. Givental waits patiently by the door until the handshakes and exchanges of cards are done.

When I finally return to him, Givental allows me to suggest that we re-enter the venue, Morrison Library, where he and other readers stood at a podium before a marble hearth, reading poetry to nearly a hundred people seated on comfortable couches and in leather wing chairs nicely placed around the 200' x 50' space, while students studying at gallery tables above tried to concentrate on the first-week reading. The walls here are oak, the floors, like the hearth, marble. Busts of Roman statesmen sit atop built-in bookshelves below enormous windows with views of the Berkeley Hills, huge spruce trees and campus buildings of various vintage.

We choose a comfortable couch near the hearth. I admit to Givental that I did not hear him read. He is kind, and explains that, with a collaborator, he's just done a volume of poems by the twentieth-century Russian poet Marina Tsetaeva, To You in 10 Decades. He hands me the book, and we begin to talk about why a mathematician at one of the nation's leading universities is translating poetry. It has to do with his education in Russia, with the place of poetry in people's lives there, and with his willingness to be part of poetry in America.