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Thursday, January 19, 2012
‘Another Event I Won’t Soon Forget’: Sapphire and Sherman Alexie At 92Y


Today’s guest post on poetry readings at 92nd Street Y is by Billy Merrell, author of Talking In The Dark and co-editor of The Full Spectrum, which received a Lambda Literary Award. He serves as Web Developer for Poets.org, the website of the Academy of American Poets. Merrell visited the Unterberg Poetry Center on Monday, November 21, for a reading by Sapphire and Sherman Alexie:

Caution: video contains profanity

I’ve never seen so many young people at a 92Y event before. I’ve attended close to a dozen of them over the years, from readings to centennial remembrances to interviews with singer-songwriters and graphic designers. Not even at 2008’s sold-out tribute to Maurice Sendak, an event I’ll remember for the rest of my life, did I see as many kids as at the recent readings by Sapphire and Sherman Alexie.

Students from three different New York City high-schools were in attendance (part of the Poetry Center Schools Project), and their presence was felt throughout. When Bernard Schwartz, Director of the Unterberg Poetry Center, announced that the students had met with the writers earlier in the evening and would be receiving free copies of their books, there was a collective cheer. It’s rare to hear such enthusiasm at a poetry event—and this was before the authors had even taken the stage. At that moment, I knew something special was in store, and I was right.

In introducing Sapphire, the beloved poet Marie Ponsot spoke of the “gallant suffering of her protagonists,” articulating their “passionate love of the beautiful and the art that fuels them ... What rises out of Sapphire’s speakers are not monologues but soliloquies, as if the great drama of the life was forcing them to speak.”

Sapphire read brief excerpts from her latest novel, The Kid. “I don’t care what the music is about, I just want to do it,” her character says, trying to explain why he’s drawn to dance. She also read four poems, though I was too enraptured by her performance to keep track of their titles. One drew inspiration from the writer James Baldwin, who she named as a major influence. She spoke of when her mother took her to the library, but wouldn’t let her stray from the children’s section. Another drew inspiration from the last novel by Charlotte Brönte.

Sherman Alexie was introduced by Robert Hershon, his long-time publisher, who began by telling the story of the poet’s early publishing. He also described Alexie’s talents as stage performer, and it was immediately clear what he meant. With titles like “The Facebook Sonnet,” “Ping Pong in Rehab,” and “Sonnet with Fabric Softener,” each of the poems he read sounded like stand-up comedy, and he introduced them with personal anecdotes that kept the audience in near-constant laughter and applause.

During Alexie’s reading, I realized that most of my work with young audiences happens remotely—disconnected from a specific time and place. As developer of content for Poets.org, I rarely get to witness in-person the moment a young person connects with a poem. It makes a sound—something between laughter and a sigh.

By the end of the event, I felt like a kid again—and not because there was anything particularly youthful about the content of the poets’ work (in fact, some of Sapphire’s prose was difficult to take), but because my expectations had been side-stepped. I left 92Y with the kind of contemplative joy that can only be sparked when one’s world has been stirred up. It’s the exact feeling one hopes to take away from a reading. The world was suddenly so much larger, all because of what these two writers had shared, their rare and important capacity for locating awe in the world. Another event I won’t soon forget.

Next up at 92Y Poetry: Words & Music: The Cornet Rilke with Wolfgang Holzmair, baritone / speaker and Shai Wosner, piano, on January 23. That’s followed by Péter Nádas on January 26.

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