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Steffler at Tree

John Steffler
John Steffler was the feature reader at Tree Feb 12th.

He read from poem 27 years ago to new poems still being edited.

You know the sensation when someone read something and… they just sold a book?

how well do you know yourself?
the various people
waiting inside?

heroes, hysterics, killers
who push to the front of the crowd
when things go wrong

Something of the content, something of the cadence. Something in recognizing the complex motivational structure. As an aside: Many first books or first few books of people are surface level. There’s no delve, only complaint or exalting. As someone in the Q&A remarked, there’s not a bitterness or pettiness infusing the writing. A lot of poetry writing aims to be clever and entertaining, romanticized mopey, or angry standup. This is working a different game.

That quoted bit turned out to be p. 53 of what I brought home. Here’s another bit from there:

“People always pointing to where they lived, seeing elaborate structures I can’t see. Just grass and rock looking secretive. Everything you do is swallowed so fast around here. Everything taken away. I wonder, does that make your life seem long? Looking back, your childhood world vanished, no beginning to life, no clear markers to measure by, maybe you’d feel like you’ve always been here. Or maybe you’d feel like you’ve never been anywhere” ~ John Steffler, p. 108, The Grey Islands by (Brick, 2000)

One of the open mic readers was also brokering in geography in a list poem of English and native-named lakes where you can’t fish. It added together powerfully. Unfortunately the open mics are no longer being recorded so hopefully some of that sharing will one day get published for wider access.

Edit: You can see an interview of him at break in interview with Lucy Morrissey. JM Francheteau discusses his poem Ohio Sport Fishing Advisory at the new blog On Paper: Ottawa.

Although I didn’t always opt in for being recorded, it was a valuable feature to have since people can put it to those who can’t come or study their own performance to improve. There’s something about having a camera pointed at you that makes the game more serious as well. It’s like performing for two audiences.

Here’s a video of most of Steffler’s reading & Q&A. What one person picks up on as key might be exactly the inverse of what strikes someone else.

What struck me from the questions and answer was his affirming that a poem enacts something. If you want to tell a surface story, you can write an essay. A poem works sub-surface not in what words denote but subliminally in sound, rhythm, connotation, connections, leaps, the common language of gesture and energy that all animals use, including us. Poems come from pre-linguisitic, from observation, from a spiritual practice of silence and surface to speak words to send us back to more pre-language. Poetry is not a quick art nor a surface art.

It connects with Allison Armstrong’s post where she has written articulately with food for thought of thinking before one empathizes/pities. Listen is the first law. She writes, “There’s this pervasive, insidious idea that there are “people with no voices”. Instead of talk, listen. “If we talk about oppression by being open, and getting vulnerable, and telling our own stories, we make space for everyone to tell theirs.” That’s not to say one shouldn’t try to walk in someone else’s shoes but do get a good look at those shoes before you call them someone else’s. In writing are trying to embrace more of the world or be defensive and shut some out? That’s a much larger debate than this post.

But, Steffler’ll be back April 23rd to lead the Tree Seed Workshop.

The Tree Seed Workshop this time was a round table of 8 people. I’m consistently impressed by the depth of gaze people bring and the insight they can apply to other people’s poems. Next time we create. It’s playing with Oulipo constraints with Gwynn Scheltema.

Next time at Tree there’s a double-feature for readers: Monty Reid and Nina Berkhout. I can’t remember if I’ve heard Nina before but I never miss a Monty reading if I can help it.

Related posts:

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  2. Tree Reading Series Changes For those who missed the last tree and subsequent announcements, Tree is shaking again. The unrestricted open mic is back until at least August. You no longer have to be...
  3. Tree Workshops As part of the rejigging of Tree reading series, the feature readers are going to go on youtube where they can be archived and viewed from wherever poetry wants to...

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