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On Poetry Potlucks: Part II – Guest’s Perspective (Jeremy Ra)

2012 August 10
by Neil Aitken
Poetry Potlucks - Jeremy Ra's Perspective

“We picture poets in the fragile grasp of a nocturne at dawn . . . not munching on pasta and fish fillet. Yet here it was, unintimidating . . . basic.”—Jeremy Ra

Guest Curated By Neil Aitken

In this installment of “On Poetry Potlucks,” our guest curator Neil cedes the floor to one of his past potluck guests, Jeremy Ra, who reflects upon the significance that his first experience at a poetry potluck held for him as a writer.

* * *

To Eat Enough Was
made three seasons, summer
and winter and autumn third
and fourth spring when
there is blooming but to eat enough
is not.
—Alkman fragment 20, quoted in Men in the Off Hours by Anne Carson

“Dying” seems to precede almost any mention of poetry in the media nowadays, as if poets do not deal with death enough that we need to prepare for the imminent bereavement of the medium as a whole. We perceive this almost as an assault—cast as vanguards of the old, the out-of-touch that failed to catch up to the modern times. That it is begrudgingly, yet unquestioningly, recognized as “art” only makes matters worse. (“It’s an acquired taste,” I’ve heard. “I just don’t get it,” I’ve been told.) Its implications are great as it refines the most basic of tools we use to form a community, yet its efforts mostly fail to captivate a large audience. (“Doesn’t it need to rhyme?” I’ve been asked.) At times, it feels we shoulder this burden alone; chained Prometheus whose heart is poked out daily for his gift that furthered the human civilization.

I think that’s why I find most poetry workshops to have a feel of a support group veiling over them at all times. We are there to pay tribute to what most people in the outside world had forgotten. We hold the corpses of our poetic veterans in our hands as we read their works. We bid them well by trying to create something of our own that says some of us remember—let’s be honest here, you’re not at the happiest place on earth. Despite the invaluable kinship I felt with fellow poets (not to mention the impeccable feedbacks that transformed my poems from malformed placentas into near-swans), I fell into a workshop limbo and retreated my poems into the solitary confines.

Few springs later by pure chance (a kind of randomness so unfathomable some call it “fate”), a friend of mine, An, told me about a regular “poetry potluck” that was being organized by Neil. This intrigued me greatly, and not just because I’m constantly hungry from being on some sort of diet. Maybe from the lack of poetry’s cultural prevalence, I must admit I myself committed the sin of sheltering my poetic activity—theoretically precluding it, rather unjustly, from my daily social interactions. It became something sacred—which is dangerous, as it gets wrapped in illogical attachment, festering yet holier-than-thou like stigmata. I knew I needed the poetic spirit to be opened and receiving the poetry potluck’s invitation seemed more than portentous.

Further, by having poetry merely a modifier to an event called “potluck,” the focus on the work aspect of the poem was deflected considerably in my mind. It was first and foremost a recognition of the need of the body. The focus, safe to say, was in the building of bonds and community, less of a rush to muse about nature or death (or whatever few topics that poets tend to reframe over and over again). Besides, my poems that have been springing up here and there like weeds under a single umbrage couldn’t withstand the intense scrutiny of 10 or more pairs of eyes judging for the next prize-hydrangea.

Neil’s apartment was at a historic building in LA’s Koreatown. I took the Metro Red Line from my work and met An before we headed over. I must confess something here—home-cooked meals were definitely strongly suggested for the potluck, for various reasons, but having in my life time produced digestible food with even less frequency than digestible poems, I opted to cheat and visit the Korean market that was 2 blocks down the street from Neil’s place to pick up some premade dishes (poets who are not cooks, I insist there’s no shame in that—no need to subject your fellow poets running for the nearest washroom, even if it was your ruse to end the meeting early).

We arrived at Neil’s apartment earlier than scheduled, as An decided to balance out (or further shame) my lack of culinary skills by cooking a fresh batch of kimchi pasta in Neil’s kitchen. Amidst casual conversations that flew past, the food got ready and the other guests arrived bearing their own contributions to the potluck. In total, we had 4 poets and An, a writer whose primary focus wasn’t poetry, who had been invited through Neil’s suggestion of including an artist of a different medium to diversify the interaction—a clever touch of mixing in the vantage point of another realm that prevents poets from seeking mere commiseration behind the comforting barricades of the ivory tower. And instead of a poem to present, An had brought a piece of prose she was working on for publication that dealt with the changing landscapes of rural Chinese art communities.

Conversations sprang up organically, so to speak—the eventual task was, of course, the presentation of the poems, but we were able to get to them slowly amidst pleasing the palates and sharing of stories. I learned about writing communities like Kundiman and references were made from Timothy Yu to Sadakichi Hartmann. Thanks to Neil’s hosting, the many references from each of us found a unity, never losing its fulcrum, always orbiting a common heart. By building on these contexts, the comments and critiques of poems too arrived more as another tangent of a conversation—a friendly critique, if ever there were such a thing.

Above all, I feel that the potluck grounded the interactions to what was literally at hand. The experience was intimate and simultaneously a lot more corporeal—what I mean by that is by the very simple act of eating, we who gathered as artists delimited the easy association of “starving” with our art, the source of afflatus didn’t center on feverish, hungered torments but a gathering of minds over a course of dinner, a Moveable Feast without the bitter drunk recounting everything later to complain about them in his “memoir” (or it exists and just hasn’t seen the light of day yet). It’s a simple concept really, to eat. But in attending workshops, so rarely did it get combined with a serious communal poetic endeavor. We picture poets in the fragile grasp of a nocturne at dawn listening for the rhythm of the rays—not munching on pasta and fish fillet. Yet here it was, unintimidating for it was basic. This was the mind of Lunch Poems interacting; this was a conscious resistance against the paths of modernist masters whose tragedies seem almost self-imposed; this was building of your community that you wished existed, this was the offerings we get to partake in after the endless solitary ritual of chasing after the muses with a pen.

Poets I believe have a special affinity to truth—the truth that lies in refusing to ignore either life or death in favor of another. We recognize the two concepts as nearly identical, always next to each other, holding hands like the twins in Diane Arbus’ portrait; it is the constant awareness of our mortality that otherwise could (and is) so easily be ignored or denied. Such also is the driving force behind the poetic sentiment that blossoms at first with wonders at all that is around (circularly so), staggers at the inexplicable, reasonless decay, then bursts once again in the flames of Phoenix—the dance of macabre of the procreant language amidst the truth that lies resting between all that is life, sprung from the inevitability of an end. Poets struggle with death, beds with death, eats death.

But to paraphrase Jim Harrison:

sometimes the only answer to death
is potluck.

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To see the other posts in Neil Aitken’s guest-curated series, “On Poetry Potlucks,” click here.

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