Saturday, July 24 at Plummer Park, the Lesbian Reading Series sponsored by A Different Light Bookstore features New York writer Eileen Myles, who does the unusual and memorable feat of reciting from memory the first four or five pages of a personal essay entitled, "My Father's Alcoholism." In cut-offs and T-shirt, Myles the incurable tomboy looks us in the eye and tells us her story, sentence after preformed sentence. Sometimes, not often, she falters, then remembers. The essay, remarkable for evoking the horrors and horrific amusements of an alcoholic household, has a strong voice. It is Myles' voice, but it is her writer's voice, definitely more shaped and modulated than the improvisation of daily speech. Suddenly he was roaring drunk. He was white. He was red. Myles' recitation, neither performance nor acting, kicks up questions: Does memorizing lend more immediacy to the hearing of the work? Should memory, shaped into prose, be re-memorized?
Eventually, Myles picks up the book and begins to read: "I only memorized so far," she says cheerfully. I, for one, am relieved to have the old familiar page conventionally lodged between reader and audience.
Sunday, July 31 is clear and hot, a good day to drive to the Ballona Wetlands to hear a reading in the Lannan Foundation's poetry garden. Today's readers are winners in the 1994 National Poetry Series contest. Founded in 1978 by poet Daniel Halpern with seed money from novelist James Michener, the Series asks five established poets to select five less-established poets for the award. Through a Lannan Foundation grant, publishers are found for the winners' books, winners receive a cash award equivalent to a small royalty advance, and are flown to Los Angeles for the reading we've come to hear. The program is varied. Traditional formal concerns seem paramount, although political and moral issues seep in, along with a universal fondness for the ironic and the arcane.
The Series has a reputation for selecting artists well worth reading: Past winners include Denis Johnson, Stephen Dobyns, Thylias Moss and Mark Doty among many others. These particular winners may not be well known yet, but over 200 people have gathered in the garden to hear them. The atmosphere is like that of a wedding: There is something virginal and celebratory about the event which, for four of the five authors, marks the publication of a first book.
The first reader, chosen by Gloria Vando, is Rafael Campo, a graduate of Harvard Medical School currently interning at UC San Francisco. Campo writes about his AIDS patients in Roethkean rhythms and dedicates a poem to Marilyn Hacker, whose recent dismissal as editor from the Kenyon Review has been widely criticized. Next, Martin Edmunds, selected by Donald Hall, smooths the pages of his book, "The High Road to Taos," with clenched fists and reels off lines of impacted imagery and music: The wind is a green fire. . . .
Maxine Kumin selected journalist Karen Swenson, a poised, 50ish woman who read poems about a killing field in Cambodia and an orangutan rehab center in Burma. Rachel Wetzsteon, John Hollander's choice, is a lanky and unassuming young woman who explains Sapphic stanzas (lest her meter sound "weird") and, after reading a dark love poem, exclaims at her own cynicism.
Wrapping up almost two hours of poetry is Kevin Young, selected by Lucille Clifton. Young, a Stegner Poetry fellow at Stanford, reads about growing up in Louisiana, his cousins and how a hair-straightening hot comb smells like burning lilacs.