Jared Alan Smith
I once had a conversation with a Frenchman I’d just quit working for about the nature of American medicine: he said that each type of doctor has become so specialized that it is near impossible to find a physician to help with a variety of ills. When he asked me if I knew of any doctors that could treat more than one small part of the body, I had a simple answer:
“Doctors of Poetry. Their work straight up heals me.”
The Frenchman nodded and scratched his chin, staring thought-filled silence through the front window of his café’ toward the sunset beyond. I don’t think he expected a line cook who couldn’t get along with his (also French) wife long enough to complete a shift to answer in such a way.
As a prose writer, I’ve always envied the ability of my favorite poets to make me scratch my chin and stare out the window. Within the space of a single stanza, I often find myself captivated, enervated and motivated all at once, and nothing else I’ve found matches that platter of multitudinous emotion. Poems from Asnia Asim’s “Eid at the Refugee Camp” to Shel Silverstein’s “Jimmy Jet and his T.V. Set” act as lines of demarcation for me on opposing ends of the tragicomic scale, and I aspire to capture the same types of tragedy and comedy within the lines of my own work, hopefully in a style that approaches the concise mastery I’ve experienced over and over through the many different forms that poetry takes.
The form poetry took for me most recently came in the rare opportunity to see my favorite poet read live in mid-September, as part of a reading series in St. Petersburg called “Poetry at the Dali.” I met Erica Dawson as a wide-eyed student of the Disquiet program in 2014, and my eyes only got wider as I read more and more of her work. Thanks to event founder and St. Petersburg Poet Laureate Helen Pruitt Wallace, Erica was joined by Jane Eyre-ophile Rita Maria Martinez to share some words on the theme of “sustenance,” which as a former professional cook made it even more impossible for me to resist the urge to come out. My inner gastro-geek was not disappointed.
Wallace opened with a poem called “Still Life with Diego,” a look into the private life of Frida Kahlo. Wallace’s “blistered poblanos on stamen-pierced plates” dialed up the heat on the whole proceeding, and Rita Martinez was more than happy to keep the spice flowing in reading from her first book-length work, The Jane and Bertha in Me. Rita’s incredibly elucidative accent only added to the exotic atmosphere of her first poem, “Going Bananas.” Her descriptions of Ice Cream Bananas, Cuban and Jamaican Reds, and Oro Nokos made my stomach rumble, and the revelation that they were all turned into tostones on her arborist father’s plate exacerbated my physical and literary hunger. She moved us forward with “Reading Jane Eyre,” a book she found as a teen sitting “red-orange like papaya pulp” and that she admitted in her “private insanity” to “scarfing like pork rinds.”
After sharing a poem that included Johnny Weissmuller (famous for his role as Tarzan) chasing women naked the through the studio parking lot, Martinez leaned back into her mastery of food in words with a poem called “Cause and Effect” that used images of macaroni scars and salty peppered eggs to show her characters’ passions along with their patho. For her final act, Rita read about her experience with the original Jane Eyre manuscript in “At The British Library,” where she could only think of Bronte’s original masterwork as a curvaceous woman she couldn’t wait to eat.If anyone was equipped to follow such a visceral array of poetic form, it was Erica Dawson, who was sure to let us know that this was the first reading she’d ever done in her reading glasses. Her reading spoke to me personally (it always does), as her musings on race and sex deal directly with many of the issues I face daily as an ESE English teacher. After trotting out “Layover,” a work of high heeled trouble and its tendency to lead, she moved into the intensely alliterative “Parallax,” a poem that speaks of “gag[ging] on your own gravity.”
Dawson’s latest project made its appearance next, a book-length work tentatively titled When Rap Spoke Straight to God that may or may not be inspired by her friendship with Derrick Austin. On hearing the title of the manuscript I sat up even straighter in my chair, as my current classroom curriculum includes such works as Bomb The Suburbs and Flip The Script, two works centered around the search for hip-hop culture’s moral center. A section in Erica’s reading called “Chronic” spoke of surviving on metaphor, star anise, and lime zest, while “Gave Proof” detailed the “salt thick” air of a stricken Baltimore. She ended with a throwback to her debut collection Big-Eyed Afraid and a crown of sonnets called “Bees in the Attic,” a poem that deals directly with the ways in which everyone remembers things differently. It was a reading to remember for all involved, that much is certain.
The Q/A session that followed was just as memorable, if for entirely different reasons. One older man was stunned by Dawson’s poetry to the point of gushing, and each poet took turns dropping wisdom on the audience about capturing the specificity of moments (Erica), musical pleasure in poetry (Helen), and best memories making the best material (Rita). All involved parties agreed when Ms. Dawson said that “poetry lends itself to growth as a person,” and I have to say that after September’s installment of Poetry at the Dali, I felt so filled with hopefulness and clarity of purpose that my personal growth from it can’t be too far off at all .