October 25, 2013

Mogadishu and Verse

Published in Literary Matters

On Tuesday, October 1, the ALSCW cosponsored a local meeting in New York City with the Center for the Humanities and the PhD Program in English at the CUNY (City University of New York) Graduate Center. The event, which consisted mainly of a reading by and conversation with poet Tom Sleigh, was moderated by the poet Phillis Levin, who currently serves on the ALSCW’s Council.

The evening started with remarks by the critic and writer Morris Dickstein, who discussed the interdisciplinary alliance that must be fostered between the worlds of poetry and scholarship, which are inextricably linked; he referenced the CUNY Graduate Center as a place that exemplifies and empowers this important alliance.

After an introduction by Levin—which evoked Sleigh’s “double life” as both poet and essayist and the special qualities found in Sleigh’s verse, including the demonstrable reverence in his poems for the work and techniques of previous poets—Sleigh read for about forty minutes from both his older and recent poems. This afforded me the opportunity of hearing once again some verse he had read a few months ago at a poetry festival in New York City where Sleigh was the featured poet and I a guest poet.

As Sleigh read this time, I was once more reminded of the poetry of James Dickey by some of Sleigh’s “home-choice,” muscular poetry of analogous subject matter and texture— in particular, doubtless personal struggles frequently given vent by both poets through physicality. For example, in “Self Portrait With Shoulder Pads,” which Sleigh recited at both readings, the métier is a high school football scrimmage in which Sleigh has been set apart in non-verbal interrogation, testosterone-centric combat, nose-to-nose on all fours, crashing away over the turf against his twin brother— Timmy and Tommy, identical gladiators—while attendant coaches and gridiron teammates encircle the two warriors and vociferously incite, encourage the physical eruption of doppelganger battle. Now that’s an artistic, poetic scene James Dickey would have envied and glorified.

The second part of the program began with a series of questions posed by Levin that dealt with the confluence of the two parts of Sleigh’s “double life” and the impact of non-fiction writing and related experiences on his verse, especially the evolution of lyricism in his poetry. Following those exchanges, Sleigh described the provocative events and intense dangers involved in getting to and being in Mogadishu, Somalia and those surrounding his time at Kenyan refugee camps—parts of writing a realtime nonfiction article. During the interface between audience and poet, much dialogue centered on the dynamics and fusion of forces driving the composition of verse and nonfiction. The expositive journey into eastern Africa was often hypnotic and benefitted from the curiosity of members of the audience and Sleigh’s obvious regard for individual Africans and fascination with the challenges associated with the front line.

On my way to the subway after the ALSCW event that night, I pondered the seeming absurdity of connecting the art of poetry—or any art, for that matter—to survival in Somalia and concluded that a line I wrote some time ago was, unfortunately, still valid: “the god of art is
no match for the god of survival.”

J. Chester Johnson is a poet, essayist, and translator.W. H. Auden and Johnson were the two poets on the drafting committee for the retranslation of the Psalms, which version is contained in the current edition The Book of Common Prayer (The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979) of The Episcopal Church (USA). Johnson has published numerous volumes of poetry, the most recent being the second edition of St. Paul’s Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems (Saint Johann Press, 2010); the collection’s signature poem remains the memento card for the 30,000 weekly visitors to the chapel at Ground Zero that survived the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He has also composed several works on the American Civil Rights Movement, six of which are included in the Civil Rights Archives at Queens College (New York City).

Published in Literary Matters


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