Modern Surrealism at Literary Arts

Following on the heels of Poetry Press Week, a new-format reading series that takes its cues from Portland’s Fashion Week, Literary Arts continued its hot streak with yet another outstanding poetry reading. On Sunday, November 10th, poets Joshua Beckman, John Beer, and Zachary Schomburg read at Literary Arts in downtown Portland, and their knockout performances gave fans of poetry and literature all the more reason to continue cramming into Literary Arts’ tiny venue.

After an introduction from Literary Arts’ director of programs and events, Susan Denning, Zachary Schomburg kicked off the night with mischievous charm, pointing to the authors’ photos and indicating how their beards had changed, for better or worse. Launching into his unique weave of humor, surrealism, and horror, Schomburg read older poems and excerpts from a new manuscript tentatively titled Agnes the Elephant. In between joking spurts of audience interaction (“You guys like incest poems?” Schomburg asked at one point) and gently mesmerizing pauses, Schomburg’s reading delivered narrators haunted by pursuers, murders and murderers, while elaborating a kind of domestic surrealism nestled in a network of distant anxiety; one of Schomburg’s closing poems, a piece about being kidnapped, underscored his themes nicely:

When I was a baby / I was kidnapped / from my bassinet / while my mother was soaking / in the bathtub. / She couldn’t hear / the intruder / walk slowly and heavily / down our hallway / or open the door / into my bedroom / because the hot water / from the faucet / was splashing into the tub. / The hot water / turned to cold water / and back into hot water. / The suds / were so high around her. / The tub / looked like / the mountainous arctic.

Following Schomburg, John Beer took the stage next and continued along in a similar vein of surrealism and humor. These veins, however, belonged to a creature of a different breed: where Schomburg’s poems echoed the surrealism of fairy tales, Beer’s poems echoed the surrealism of theatre. Offering selections from his book The Waste Land and Other Poems, along with an extended sample from a new manuscript, Beer read at a stately speed that gradually accelerated, churning out pieces dense with puns and reference in a tone and pace that seemed as though he was holding a cocktail in his free hand (and drinking from it more rapidly as the reading progressed). Often riffing on intellectual figures in an absurdist style, one of the pieces Beer read involved “a [businessman] named Eliot, who had a secretary named Pound, who had a secretary named Mussolini” and a narrative revolving around gifts that kept (erroneously) changing colors.

Halfway through his performance, Beer abruptly shifted gears and started speaking at a brisk clip as he launched into a hilarious, fourth wall-breaking, new and untitled work. Pushing for maximum absurdity, Beer’s new poem entangles the narration of many different speakers, often intercutting or cutting them off for punning or jarring effect. “Lucinda said, ‘The day I was born, I cried like a baby,’” says one voice; “the trapeze artist who caught his wife in the act,” says another. In another moment, one speaker comes across a man who’s sitting on the ground in parking lot and asks what he’s doing. “I found a parking space,” the seated man answers, “and sent my wife to buy a car.” One standout sequence extends amusing comparisons of differences between women and men: “When a woman orders a steak, she’s really saying ‘I want you to cook steak in a particular woman way—with salad and tomatoes and shit. The man is all about the table: ‘Put the steak on the table and move away from it—before I eat your arm!’”

After a brief intermission, Joshua Beckman brought the reading into its second half. Picking up on Beer’s threads of warped humanity, Beckman carried the theme forward with poems full of pathos and grit, fresh from his new book The Inside of An Apple. Absent of surrealism and with a rough, strong voice like steel burlap, Beckman’s poems articulate speakers observant of nature but both jaded and apprehensive in tone. “Stupid world, made of fossils and moons,” says one poem’s speaker, later uttering in a moment of calloused lament that “‘God’s Wicker Basket Furnace’ is like a name we gave our state, stupid drunk.” At times cynical and approaching the sardonic, the speakers in Beckman’s poems seldom dip into humorous remarks and feel keenly aware of the mortal experience, adding a strong counterpoint to the night’s previous performances by Schomburg and Beer (and attesting to Denning’s solid program-planning abilities.) Mortality grounds and carries many of Beckman’s poems, never wavering into ethereal flights but sticking to hard, obdurate realities. “They want to call it dead,” says one speaker, “but dead is too alive.” Yet between litanies of cynical observation, rivulets of optimism trickle through and undergird Beckman’s poems as ultimately optimistic. “This poem which was to be called ‘Waste and Use,’” said one speaker toward the end of the evening, “will be called ‘Image of Solace Attempted in Your Name.’”

As if to extend themes of humanity to their logical conclusion, the night ended on a peculiar meditative note as Beer joined Beckman on stage to take turns reading poems by “self-exiled” American poet Robert Lax. Beer worked as Lax’s apprentice on Patmos, a small Greek island where Lax lived for the last 35 years of his life; a collection of poems edited by Beer, Poems (1962–1997), was recently published by Wave Books, providing a new look at Lax’s ultra-minimalist forms. If Schomburg’s opening reading served the audience its most accessible work, Lax’s poems provided the opposite bookend, weaving a hypnotic drone of mostly single-syllable words fixated on the minute. An exemplary poem came right at the start of Lax’s segment when Beer read “one stone one stone one stone.” Immersed in repetition, the poem consists of three phrases repeated as many as 21 times, drawing toward a singular focus that might taunt the less-than-serious reader or listener with the threat of sleep. Beer and Beckman did a masterful job performing Lax’s poems, however, and their mesmeric tone and pace—like the steady movement of a clock—left the entire Literary Arts audience enrapt.

Have a look at our other posts about Poetry Press week: Portland’s Poetry Press Week is Full of Surprises & Poetry’s Alive in Portland.

Poetry’s Alive in Portland

This past Sunday, November 10th, local poets John Beer and Zachary Schomburg came together for a reading and conversation at the Literary Arts event space here in downtown Portland. They brought Joshua Beckman along for the ride, another accomplished poet who splits his time between Seattle and New York.

The event was well-attended with the seats filled to capacity and many more content to stand and listen in what is an intimate, but not crowded, space. Encouragingly, much of the crowd was a younger set drawn in by good poetry (as well as the free food and drinks that were offered). Many of the events at the space are free and open to public, offering constant opportunities for anyone to walk in off the street and experience something special and inviting right in the middle of the city.

Zachary Schomburg, the first to read, is the author of three volumes of poetry: The Man Suit (2007), Scary No Scary (2009), and Fjords Vol. 1 (2012), which won the 2013 Oregon Book Award for poetry. He publishes through Black Ocean Press, distributed through Small Press Distribution, and coedits Octopus Books here in Portland. His work is often called surrealist or absurdist, but it contains a good deal of self-effacement and humor. The up-and-coming work from which he read didn’t disappoint in this regard. His reading style is laid back and easy, which fit the relaxed atmosphere of the space and set the conversational tone for the rest of the reading. He takes his poetry seriously, though. Schomburg, by his own admission, is well aware of the surrealist traditions he comes from, and he is responding to them and forging new ground for poets like him.

Humor and a comfortable place within tradition are the things that seemed to relate these poets to one another artistically. John Beer, a faculty member in the MFA program at Portland State, gave a reading of his own that elicited plenty of laughter from the crowd. Beer has published The Wasteland and Other Poems (Canarium, 2010) and is now an author for Wave Books. He also has a background in theatre criticism and nonfiction writing. His new work is centered on subject matter that sounds highbrow at first glance: a Duchamp art exhibition or translation of an eighteenth-century German philosopher. The poems themselves, however, are humorous. The poetry about translation is really a long joke about his inadequacy as a translator and all of the tangents and funny conversations he has with other people, and himself, about the failure of his work. His poetry centered on Duchamp, while lyrical and well-rendered, uses repetition of phrases and imagery to assert the absurdity of both the art and his response to it. In listening to Beer and watching his constant smile as he read, I got the sense he takes his poetic craft seriously but definitely doesn’t take himself too seriously.

The same goes for Joshua Beckman, also a writer with Wave Books. He is the author of nine books of poetry and several translations. Beckman chose mostly to read from his newest collection of poetry, entitled The Inside of an Apple, which was published just this past September. His quiet voice drew the room into his spare poetry that was markedly different in rhythm from Beer’s and Schomburg’s. The new book catalogs his mental and emotional responses to everyday events around him in an immediate and visceral way. Beckman’s poetry rolls out in long, convoluted sentences with sound echoes so dense it can be hard to keep track of them all. This made it an interesting listening experience and seemed to keep the audience engaged—even after an hour of reading and a couple breaks for food and drinks.

The evening closed with Beckman and Beer alternating readings of poetry by a poet whom they both like and admire, Robert Lax. John Beer, while living on the island of Patmos in the Greek Isles, actually served as literary assistant to Lax. While Lax’s poetry, repetitive and experimental, didn’t really fit into the style of the rest of the evening, it was good to close the night with Beer and Beckman sharing their love for this particular poet with the audience.

The event accomplished what it set out to do: creating a feeling of having a few beers and good food while listening to friends read the fruits of their passionate labor. As a bonus, it showcased not just some of the Northwest’s best poetry but also the kind of great poetry that’s coming from the small presses here in Portland and elsewhere. With poets like these around, and places like the Literary Arts events space for them to reach the community, literature and poetry will continue to grow and thrive in the city Ooligan Press calls home.