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.

Portland’s Poetry Press Week Is Full of Surprises

What happens when you mix a poetry reading with Fashion Week?

You get Poetry Press Week, a unique event dreamed up by Liz Mehl and Justin Rigamonti, in which the works of five Portland poets are read and performed by models in front of an audience comprised of publishers, press, and the public. Inspired by New York’s Fashion Week, the event is a fresh way to bring together local poets, their work, and their audience.

November 7th saw the launch of the first biannual Poetry Press Week at Literary Arts at 7:00 p.m. Models performed new, unpublished poems by Matthew Dickman, Ashley Toliver, Britta Ameel, Carl Adamshick, and Zachary Schomburg while the audience enjoyed a variety of snacks, beer, and wine. The poems were projected onto a screen behind the models so the audience could read along. At the end of each poet’s set, the models and performers walked ­­­­the runway together to a round of applause, as is traditional of a fashion show.

The evening started off with a series of list poems by Matthew Dickman, which were read by six models and incorporated three other performers to bring a visual aspect to the poems. Photographs and newspapers were some of the props used, and one performer draped in scarves ventured, hissing, into the audience as she tossed the scarves on the listeners.

Ashley Toliver's IDEAL MACHINE

A reading of Ashley Toliver’s “IDEAL MACHINE”

The work of Ashley Toliver was second, in a ten-minute series called “IDEAL MACHINE,” which was read in unison by two models dressed in white. Each woman spoke slowly and deliberately, without emphasis on any particular word, as they stared straight ahead. Combined with the pulsing, ambient music in the background, as well as black-and-white scientific diagrams projected behind the models, it made for a hair-raising, unnerving performance——in the best kind of way.

Britta Ameel was next, read by Laura Gibson, who sang soulfully and strummed her guitar. At times she encouraged the audience to hum specific melodies as she read. The audience participation created a warm atmosphere, and Gibson occasionally offered insight on her relationship with Toliver.

Carl Adamshick’s poem “Black Snow” was read by four models who all wore black clothing and rotated through sections of the poem. In a way, this set was most like a fashion show, with each model walking up the runway to the microphone, speaking their part, and then falling to the back of the line for the next model’s turn.

The last set was arguably the best of the night. The hypnotic buzzing of a bass filled the room, and a childlike voice steadily recited the story of a missing boy while the words played across the screen. As the tension in the audience built—everyone thoroughly creeped out—the model stepped through a curtain separating himself from the audience. Tiny seven-year-old Hamza Akalin, dressed in the classic ghost costume (a white sheet with two holes cut out for eyes), made his way to the middle of the room and launched into the next excerpt from Zach Schomburg’s upcoming book Agnes the Elephant. He read seriously, if with some difficulty seeing the book he clutched, and was helped by a kind audience member who held the microphone for him. It was a perfect and unexpected way to end the evening.

Founders of Portland's Poetry Press Week

The founders of Portland’s Poetry Press Week

The date of the next Poetry Press Week has not yet been decided, so make sure to keep an eye on the Poetry Press Week Facebook page and Literary Arts’ website for the future announcement!