A Night of Poetry with Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Co-Op Books. This is where the magic happens.

In my continued efforts to challenge my brain and improve my writing, I am once again taking a Creative Writing: Poetry course at Simon Fraser University (this one is the 400-level version of the 300-level class I took this spring). Rachel Blau DuPlessis (“poet and essayist, and feminist critic and scholar”) is currently in town so class was cancelled and we were STRONGLY encouraged to attend one of her Vancouver readings.

Last night about six or seven of us gathered at the People’s Co-Op Bookstore (1391 Commercial Drive) to hear DuPlessis read from her latest (and as of yet unpublished) work. It was obvious who the students were, as we sat eagerly in front while a formidable crowd of poets, poetry lovers, and scholars gathered behind us. We really were in for a special treat as DuPlessis read selections from her latest Draft poems (including what she called her “final” draft), and she told us afterwards that this was the first reading at which she had read these poems.

[Notes about the Drafts. There are over a hundred of them. This particular project has been in process for over twenty years.]

Listening to DuPlessis read made me realize that I connect with (good) contemporary poetry read aloud the way I connect with (good) contemporary dance. There is an arc there, carefully crafted, but it is emotional, intellectual, and/or intuitive rather than narrative or linear. Because one thing does not lead to another in a linear sense (and because, in a reading, I cannot see the page the poet is reading from), what I perceive or catch hold of are fragments, and I cannot for the life of me remember exactly what I saw or heard.

I’m used to this when watching dance. I’ve long known contemporary dance puts me into a mental state in which I am perceiving what is on the stage but also thinking and feeling a million different things which, I assume, are informed by what I see. Every once in a while I will be shaken from my reverie by an image or movement that particularly strikes me. Some could say what I’m experiencing is the act of “not paying attention”, but what I really think I am experiencing is something more transcendental.

This is what listening to DuPlessis read is like. I do not remember what any of the lines of poetry were, and I am not well-read enough to have caught the quotations or allusions within the poems, but goddamn, that woman can read. I was pretty lukewarm on the idea of attending a poetry reading because the last one I went to featured a poet who was so incredibly precious and flowery with the way in which she read the poems aloud I could not hear the poetry for the reading. DuPlessis is not flowery. She reads with conviction, and the climaxes and denouements of her “arguments” (because in a way I did get the sense there was an argument, a thesis here) reminded me of a political speech in the best possible sense–a speech that makes the people want to fight for something (but instead of lowest common denominator platitudes about God blessing America, we have poetry).

After her reading, DuPlessis took questions, and was kind enough to truly fully answer questions about her process, about her reading (she does not rehearse or prepare for the act of reading allowed, which was my question, but she does revise her poetry so many times that the arc and movement is built in), and about poetry as an art form in general. Poetry is different from other writing (fiction, etc.), DuPlessis says, because of the concern for the line, and the different ways in which syntax and structure must be taken into account (if I’m totally botching my paraphrasing here, I’m so sorry, I’m going by rather awestruck memory).

I cannot remember what happened while listening to DuPlessis read, but I do know I had moments of surprise, that something struck me as funny once or twice, that I was startled when she finished, and that I thought a million strange thoughts while DuPlessis read, none of which I can remember either. Very much like any evening I would spend with good contemporary dance. I just hadn’t expected the two to be so similar.

[I should mention that although the People’s Co-Op Bookstore was the venue for the evening, DuPlessis was actually hosted last night by the Kootenay School of Writing. The book store is also worth checking out–lots of interesting looking books, none of the crap “memoirs” of young reality stars written by ghost writers that you’d find in a Chapters nowadays.]

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