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.

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