On Poetry Potlucks, Part III – Guest’s Perspective (Elaine Wang)

Poetry Potlucks - Elaine Wang's Perspective
“I think part of the acceptance . . . comes from the potluck part, from the cakes and the dumplings. If you’re a decent human being, it’s almost impossible to not be kind with people with whom you’ve just broken bread.”—Elaine Wang

Guest Curated By Neil Aitken

For this installment of “On Poetry Potlucks,” our guest curator Neil has invited Elaine Wang, one of the guests at his very first poetry potluck (and an LR Issue 1 contributor), to reflect upon her experience. In today’s post, Elaine regales us with a tale of cake; rocks and mysterious masseuses; and the solace that she found through the group of sympathetic strangers gathered there.

* * *

There is so much cake.

I am at Neil’s first ever poetry potluck, and I’m mostly wondering how three people are going to eat two full-sized cakes.  And these are optimal condition cakes—one is a green tea roll with icing inside and the other gently sandwiches layers of jellied fruit.

I think I ate four pieces of cake that night, and that was just dessert.  Neil had made his famous sweet potato dumplings for dinner.

But more on the poetry part and less on the potluck part—after spending some time catching up and getting to know one another, Neil led Ngoc and I through a generative writing exercise designed to find the “heart of the poem” through bringing together seemingly disparate pieces of our lives and finding their points of contact.

I learned that I am obsessed with doors and a rock.  Not rocks, a single small, smooth rock.  Namely, the scented, wet rock a massage therapist had laid in the hole where my clavicles meet after an almost two and a half hour massage.  The massage was only supposed to be an hour and a half, but the massage therapist later commented that he had lost track of time because he had been so immersed in working on my body because it was in one of the best conditions of his clients (at this point of my life, I had been dancing more regularly in jazz and ballet).  I had felt it, too.  The whole session felt like a weird, non-sexual but completely physical communion.  For the next two weeks I was wracked with the following questions: Did he just leave rocks in everyone’s necks?  Was this a secret come-on, since it’s so taboo in professional massage therapist/client relations?  If I went back to try and find him (I didn’t know his name, and I got the massage through a Groupon), would they throw me out and would I be tagged on some sort of creeper list?

Continue reading “On Poetry Potlucks, Part III – Guest’s Perspective (Elaine Wang)”

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

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.

Continue reading “On Poetry Potlucks: Part II – Guest’s Perspective (Jeremy Ra)”

On Poetry Potlucks: Part I – How to Start a Poetry Potluck

The table at a past poetry potluck (Photo by An Xiao)
The table at a past poetry potluck (Photo by An Xiao)

A Guest Post by Neil Aitken

Neil Aitken
Neil Aitken

Editors’ Note: We welcome Boxcar Poetry Review editor and Issue 4 contributor Neil Aitken to the blog this summer as he guest-curates a short series for us about his poetry potlucks, a unique tradition combining food and literary community that he began several months ago in his L.A. apartment. Over the course of the next few weeks, Neil will be sharing about his experiences hosting and developing the concept of the poetry potluck, and may even invite a few of his past guests to share theirexperiences, as well.

In this week’s post, Neil discusses some of the background behind his poetry potlucks and provides some practical pointers about what it takes to host such a gathering. We hope that this post, as well as the rest of the series, will inspire you to carve out time to break bread with other members of the literary community where you live–and to maybe even begin a poetry potluck tradition of your own.

* * *

Whether you live in the big city or in a small town, writing tends to be a lonely labor and we often find ourselves craving opportunities to discuss our work and our interests with others who share a passion for literature and the arts.  Writing retreats like Kundiman and VONA are certainly helpful in providing us with safe spaces for sharing our work and inspiring us to innovate—they also provide us with the chance to meet fellow writers and artists who are exploring and challenging the contemporary literary landscape.  Once the retreat is over though, often, unless we live someplace with a significant population of our fellow participants, we’ll return home to our original communities and find ourselves back where we started (at least in terms of face-to-face contact).  While we may stay in touch with our new friends and peers through email and Facebook, these forms of contact still pale in comparison to time spent together.

One possible solution is to create our own spaces of sharing and interaction.   For the past several months, I’ve been doing this by hosting poetry potlucks in my little apartment in Los Angeles.

Potlucks are a powerful way of building community—they encourage sharing and interaction.  For my poetry potlucks, I ask each participant to bring a dish and a poem to share.  People often bring food that they’ve prepared at home, but it’s also perfectly fine to bring something store-bought.  My neighborhood is full of great restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores, so even a late arrival can pick something up on the way in.

Likewise, there are no fixed rules about what type of poetry needs to be shared.  I let my guests know that the potluck isn’t a formal workshop—they are welcome to bring something finished that they want to share as a way of introducing others to their current projects, or they can bring copies of something they want feedback on.  The emphasis should always be on dialogue and exchange—a poetry potluck promotes active and engaging discussion, book and movie recommendations, brainstorming, and hopefully a fair bit of cross-pollination and creative inspiration.

These poetry potlucks have been a big hit here in Los Angeles—largely because they fill a vital role, providing a space where community is born and fostered.   Here are some suggestions and tips I’ve learned over the past year’s worth of poetry potlucks.  Hopefully these ideas will be helpful to you if you’re interested in creating a poetry potluck or something similar in your own community.

Continue reading “On Poetry Potlucks: Part I – How to Start a Poetry Potluck”