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Words Are Bonds

Worlds intersect at the Austin International Poetry Festival

By Michael Agresta, Fri., April 17, 2009

After wading through the crowds for all the various music, film, interactive, theatre, crawfish, kite, and grumpy-donkey festivals that pop up around town every warm-weather weekend in the spring, you could be forgiven for not knowing that Austin also hosts a poetry festival, and an internationally notable one at that. Poetry tends to draw smaller crowds; if a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts is correct, the readership of poetry in America has declined by more than 50% in just the last 16 years. The Austin International Poetry Festival, the world's largest nonjuried poetry festival, would like to change that. AIPF's unique, open-invite approach allows all kinds of artists – from formalists to performance poets, prize winners to amateurs – to come together across 30 stages and four days. The result is a rough view of the state of contemporary poetry in Texas, the United States, and the world.

The thrill of this sort of event (not unlike the other, more famous festivals in Austin) is to discover an artist you've never heard of, a new voice with something important to say or some impressive way of saying it. But AIPF has also recruited a few better-known poets to bring out the crowds. These are sure bets among the up-and-comers, poets for whom you'll want to show up early to find a seat or stay late to get a book signed. Here's what you can expect:

Dean Young
Dean Young

Dean Young won't have to travel far to headline this year's festival: He moved to Austin last summer to take a prestigious faculty position at UT's Michener Center for Writers. Were he coming in from out of town, his reading would be major news in poetry circles. Luckily, he's still new enough to Austin that many fans haven't yet had a chance to see him, so this will be an exciting event. Young's Elegy on Toy Piano (2005) was short-listed for a Pulitzer Prize, and he's been the recipient of Guggenheim, NEA, and Stegner fellowships, among various other honors. His work mixes strains of playful surrealism with New York School abstraction, always with a sense of humor. His performances make a nice contrast to the typical cadences of an academic poetry reading – Young's turns of phrase verge on a dark, self-effacing form of stand-up comedy, and he never fails to deliver a few off-kilter laughs. For example: "It drove me crazy, the way she smiled/at strangers and I could never be/a stranger." Or: "You'd lost your place before but never/so committedly." Young's next book, a prose work on poetics, is to be called The Art of Recklessness. If that seems to you like an art worth practicing, you will enjoy his work. (Catch Young at the Big Read at Ruta Maya, Saturday, April 25, 8-11pm, or moderating a poetry forum panel Saturday, 10am-noon.)

Meena Alexander
Meena Alexander
Photo by Marion Ettlinger

Meena Alexander, like Young, is a former Guggenheim fellow in poetry, as well as a winner of the PEN Open Book Beyond Margins Award for Illiterate Heart (2002). Her poems tend to address themes of migration and dislocation, the development of a globalist and feminist consciousness, and the challenges of negotiating American life as a foreign-born woman. In addition to her successes as a poet, she has edited a volume of Indian Love Poems and written two novels and a memoir, 1993's Fault Lines, which was chosen as one of Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year. The daughter of Syrian Christians, born in India and raised mostly in Sudan before immigrating to America, Alexander has used writing both to forge a specific cultural identity and to grapple with the universal questions raised by the global forces that have shaped her life. In poems such as "Raw Silk," she gives clear, sensuous images of her beginnings as a poet: "In another life I crouched on the stone floor reading poetry/– Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit .../cette paisible rumeur-la that sort of the thing/and the town was literally blazing –/guns, grenades, blisters of smoke/on market place and mosque./Through the bars of a white washed school room/Verlaine peering, above his head a palm tree cradling the sun." In a neat contrast to Young, Alexander's upcoming nonfiction book will be called The Poetics of Dislocation. The two are poets at the top of their respective arts, and they may provide unexpectedly fine complements to each other. (Alexander will participate in the Big Read at Ruta Maya, Saturday, April 25, 8-11pm, and the poetry forum, location TBA, Saturday, April 25, 10am-noon. She will also read at BookPeople during the 4-6pm slot on Saturday.)

Brian Turner
Brian Turner
Photo by Don J. Usner

Brian Turner, on the other hand, is a younger poet who has just recently risen to national prominence. His first collection of poems, Here, Bullet, is based on his experiences as a U.S. Army infantry team leader in Iraq. The book has earned tremendous attention and critical recognition for a first publication, and in 2005, a brief article in The New Yorker titled "War Poet" profiled Turner and his work. The Iraq war didn't make Turner a poet – he'd already completed a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Oregon before he shipped out – but he has very quickly become the best-known poetic chronicler of that conflict. "Here, Bullet," the title poem of his anthology, is an example of the sort of poetry that is both timeless and specific to Iraq. Turner conjures the tense boredom of a tour of duty where routine rounds can turn to combat – or IED carnage – at any moment. He addresses the projectile: "Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,/that inexorable flight, that insane puncture/into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish/what you've started. Because here, Bullet,/here is where I complete the word you bring/hissing through the air." It goes without saying that Turner's success story is an unusual one among contemporary poets, so here's hoping he brings a breath of fresh air and news of the world to the AIPF gathering. (Turner will appear at the Big Read at Ruta Maya, Saturday, April 25, 8-11pm, and at BookPeople during the 1-3pm slot on Saturday, April 25. He will also participate in the poetry forum, location TBA, Saturday, 10am-noon.)

A few featured Texas poets also deserve a look. Dave Parsons was a finalist for the 2009-10 Texas poet laureate position and has published three books. One of those, Editing Sky, won the Texas Review Poetry Prize. Jack Brannon, another UT-affiliated poet, is a Pushcart Prize nominee and an alumnus of the Michener Center for Writers. He is also the founder and director of Poetry at Round Top, an important institution for the promotion of poetry in the state. And Michael Guinn is a key figure in the Dallas-Fort Worth slam scene, known as "the Hardest Working Man in Poetry," both for his stage show and his tireless efforts to promote slams across Texas.

Guinn is not alone as a slam artist on the AIPF roster – a 2½-hour slam event is scheduled for Friday night, April 24, at Ruta Maya (9:30pm-12mid), drawing performers from around the state. Guinn will host. This mixture of performance-oriented and text-oriented poets is almost unheard of among major poetry festivals. According to AIPF Director Ashley Kim, that's an intentional choice and a challenge to the status quo. "Whether they memorize their poems and rap onstage or read from a self-published book of poetry," says Kim, "poets have something to say. We give them a stage. Thirty stages, to be exact. Not just slam poets and academic poets but Indian poets and African poets, straight poets and gay poets, old poets and young poets, famous poets and closet poets. Why? Because that's what poetry is – it's a stage. It's a place where two worlds collide. Yours and mine. Theirs and ours. The audience's and the artist's."


The 17th annual Austin International Poetry Festival runs April 23-26 in venues around town. See www.aipf.org for complete lineup and venue details. AIPF is still seeking volunteers for the festival; contact aipfdirector@gmail.com for more information.

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