Kaleidoscope Reading Series report: Karen Llagas, Benjamin Bac Sierra, & Brian Teare

So as part of my assignment to myself, to check out readings somewhat outside my usual scene and report on them here, I went to the Kaleidoscope Reading Series on Thursday, March 24, at the Kaleidoscope Free Speech Zone. The readers that night were Karen Llagas, Benjamin Bac Sierra, and Brian Teare.

Here's where I admit to being shy. I'm not an especially brave person in social situations, especially not new ones. I always talk about how I sat in the back of the room at Small Press Traffic for like 3 years before I started talking to people instead of running out the back door when the reader announced their last 2 poems. And so here's where I also admit that Brian Teare was one reason I chose Kaleidoscope for my first assignment. At least I would know one person there! Plus I hadn't yet heard him read from his new book.  I invited my friend Barbara Joan Tiger Bass to go with, as we've been talking for a few months about some forms of cross-pollination, like maybe I would go with her to some readings I might not otherwise, and she would go with me to some readings she might not otherwise. Kaleidoscope seemed like a good first choice since neither of us had ever been.

Until a few days before the reading, I somehow managed to obscure from myself that the person who curates and produces the Kaleidoscope Reading Series, Michelle Wallace, is a Mills MFA alum. And that many of the past readers at this series have one way or another been connected to Mills. And that, in part because I work at Mills, I've been connected to many of the past readers one way or another. I felt very doh! When I remember-ealized this a few days before the reading. The things I'll forget! Which is to say I'm totally connected to the Kaleidoscope reading series despite having never attended until a few weeks ago. And many people I adore have read in this series, and I missed their readings. Doh.

So the Kaleidoscope Free Speech Zone is super charming, basically a storefront on 24th Street in the Mission, turned into a living room performance space. There are colored ceiling tiles in Nada Gordon-ish colors, maroons and purples. Couches slouch around the edges, and, this sounds crazy but it’s true, a baby grand piano sits towards the back of the room, in the performance area, behind which are some curtains, and behind that, a bar. Barbara Joan got a cup of sage tea, served in a china teacup, and when she commented on the tea cup, Sara Powell, who runs Kaleidoscope, told us about the recent tea party (of all things) she held on the sidewalk in front of Kaleidoscope, in protest  of the sit/lie ordinance recently passed in San Francisco. I got a glass of red wine. It cost around $4. I think Barbara Joan's tea was $2. The reading was free.

As soon as we walked in, I saw Sean Labrador y Manzano, Brian Teare, Miranda Mellis, and Michelle Wallace. I immediately felt less shy, and after a little while, spilled some wine on my notebook. I talked to Sean about the MFA student mixers he's organizing a few blocks away.

The first reader, Karen Llagas, began by reading a poem written by someone else. She talked about how nervous she gets before readings, and that she's started doing this, reading a poem by someone else, as a way to be less nervous, to be more grounded. I'm not sure if she used that word, "grounded." She recited the poem from memory. I was impressed. It was pretty long, or she brought a lot of space to it, she read the breaks. She intentionally didn't tell us who wrote the poem before she read it. The poem, which I have remained somewhat obsessed with, both the fact of her selecting this particular poem to memorize, and the way she presented it with minimum context, is about a man who wants to hit a woman in the face because she refuses to have sex with him, and the man in the poem is sort of defiantly like yeah, that's right, I said it, I wanted to punch her in the face. The man in the poem asks whether saying one wants to hit a woman in the face in a poem is the same as hitting her in the actual face. The poem goes on to ask questions about gender stereotypes, although it does not identify these as such. The poem ends by saying that nobody is safe as long as there is desire.

I was so with Llagas in some way while she recited this poem, who I don't know but felt totally identified with, I too get very nervous before reading, and I felt very with her in this act of memorizing a poem, admired the devotion and presence of that. Yet I found myself not really wanting to be with the poem itself. Whenever I veered into being with the poem she was speaking, I would think what? TF? and veer back out, so it's entirely possible I am getting something wrong about the poem in attempting to describe it here. In some way I did feel sucker punched in the face by this poem, in which women will always run the risk of being hit in the face if they want to have or not have sex with men, or be sexual in a world where there are men. While at the same time agreeing that desire, writ large (larger than the poem allowed for) often has little to do with safety. The poem seemed to figure or constellate desire around men and masculine subjectivity, and a lack of safety around women and feminine subjectivity, and those terms got fixed in place.

After she read the poem, Llagas revealed its author as Tony Hoagland, who writes, I'm not an expert here but, I'm given to understand, persona poems. And one could say, I guess, that this was a poem about sexism and power relations and violence towards women, or about gender stereotypes. I don't know. Llagas didn't say much about the poem, I do remember she mentioned Hoagland as a former teacher, my sense at the time was that she held him in positive regard, but I'm not sure why I thought this?  She briefly mentioned some recent controversy involving Hoagland, which she "wasn't going to talk about." Then she began reading her own work.

Before this reading I'd already been thinking, have continued to think, a lot about the moment at AWP which Llagas referenced but didn't talk about, a moment from which Claudia Rankine initiated "a discussion around the creative imagination, creative writing and race."  In Rankine's call for responses and thinking, she specifically requested that responses not mention herself or Hoagland, in the interest of moving towards a larger conversation. Everything about Rankine's intervention from AWP forward has been risky and powerful and vulnerable and necessary and provocative and graceful. I'm thinking how anything I might say here about the Hoagland poem Llagas memorized and recited feels a little easy, like, hop on pop, he's sexist, too. Although I am probably late to the game on this poem, which I just located by googling "Hoagland punch woman in face," and lo, it's called "Adam and Eve." On the internet people mostly seem to praise "Adam and Eve" for its tough tenderness, or tough honesty. An "uh" or an "ugh" is bubbling its way up from the speech parts of my body here. Yet anything I might say about this poem in this location is probably not all that risky or vulnerable. I have never worked in the same institution as Hoagland, like Claudia Rankine, or taken a class with him, like Karen Llagas, or a million other possible connections one might have with another writer.

But still, I couldn't stop thinking about the Hoagland poem and Llagas's decision to memorize and recite it as a preface to her own work, and that's probably the other thing, I've sometimes read work by others before my own, so there was that identification in my obsessing, too. I kept thinking about it during the rest of her reading, and now I can't stop thinking about it in this blog post that has gotten too long again. At first I received her performance move as a positive identification with Hoagland, in support of him, and was totally puzzled. But in retrospect it feels way murkier, ambivalent. Does she admire the poem, find it usefully provocative? Did she withhold its author so that we in the audience might experience the poem as mediated by a female speaker, a female body, and perhaps receive the male speaker in the text differently somehow? Was she asking a question about encountering a text without knowing something about the identity of the person who wrote it, the received ideas around that person? Was she saying something about complicated relationships and alliances within poetry world? Or something about her own complicated relationship to writing programs, teachers, authority? Was she reciting the poem to critique it? Was she critiquing a tradition or identity that hogs up space in the room, the difficulty of writing and reading through that static? Was she saying something about what kind of writing does and doesn't get heard, and seen? I started to think that maybe her move was partaking in the ambivalence around positionality that persona poems often claim.

What I remember most about Llagas's reading of her own work is a ghazal with a line about bread and bones, how both of them can be broken. And a story about how she turned 8 in 1986, when Ferdinand Marcos was driven out of the Phillipines, how weird it was to be 8 and in the house while everybody, all the adults, were on the streets.  How when you're 8 in the house you don't really get what's going on outside, the house seems the same on the inside. Here is a great review of her book Archipelago Dust that makes me want to read it. I feel bad that I couldn't hear her much of the rest of her reading, that Hoagland's poem took over my brain so much. But also the other thing I can't stop thinking about is how this reading at Kaleidoscope was the only space in the Bay Area where I've heard any public reference to Rankine's Open Letter project, and AWP talk.

Also, did I mention I'm shy? Apologies that no photos of Karen Llagas or Benjamin Bac Sierra accompany this post: it wasn't until I took a photo of Brian Teare reading at the end of the night (above, right) that I realized I hadn't felt it was ok to photograph, on my dumb blurry iphone, writers who I don't personally know. Seriously, could I be any more of a doof.

The next reader, Benjamin Bac Sierra, started by asking if we wanted to know anything about him or the book, Barrio Bushido. And then he told us how he came to write it, which was a totally interesting story about growing up in the neighborhood, a few blocks away in the Army Street projects, joining the marine corps and becoming a machine gunner in the first gulf war, and then returning to the Bay Area and taking classes at City College, transferring to UC Berkeley where he earned a BA in English Lit, and entering the MFA program at SF State. He told us how he left the MFA program at State halfway through, how he’d grown tired of abstractions and theory around writing, and went to UC’s Hastings College of the Law instead. At this point I think I was expecting this story to turn towards work in social justice, but it turned into a story about the academy in some way, as Sierra got a job teaching law at City College, where he’s been, in a tenured position, for the last ten years. And how he didn’t expect to be a writer, thought he’d be a “normal person” instead (did he say this or am I misremembering?) not someone who published books. But that after his brother passed away, he had to do something, and I think the book in some way memorializes his brother, the neighborhood.

Sierra described the section he’d be reading from as written from the perspective of a “super cholo,” in my notes I’ve written down “the brown fist is blessed, and it’s in your face” also something about a samurai, I think this was about the code of the streets, which he described as illogical, unwritten. I also wrote down “a saint of the streets, but not a christian saint” which went on to be so very true, as he read from this astonishing section where a man describes how the woman he loves, who he thinks has left him to go to Florida, is actually in her house, where she smokes crack for days. And he stands outside her window for fantasy amounts of time, day and night, watching her while she smokes and smokes and smokes. Being with her in this way. I didn’t take notes because I was totally enthralled by the reading, I was having those feelings like what is this, I have not heard it before, even though there are many comparisons one could make to various novels of magical realism, and also part of me was scared at the beginning that this reading was going to be about a bitch-whore-addict who had abandoned her man, but instead it was this story of increasing tenderness and being-with, and desire and love. The scene’s proportions grew ever more fantastic. As the woman smokes, she doesn’t move from her chair, she is in Florida, she’s in this other world, and the man who loves her stands by the window, watching while she smokes, and while she smokes she is also shitting on the floor, the shit piles up under the chair, he sees this but isn’t disgusted, he’s seeing all of this and at the same time seeing her pussy and missing being with her and wanting, more than anything, her love, she’s never defiled in this scene, she’s somehow terribly single-minded, even while the story is obviously full of the grief of one who stands at the window and watches the person he has lost who is in another world although also in this world. Florida. I think this scene goes on for a week. And at some point the narrator realizes that if she can be in the room with her own shit piled up under her chair, he can be with her too, and he goes into the room. He sits with her. There is a cloud of flies on the shit, like a flock of birds. She ignores him. At a certain point she begins to scoop up her shit, put it in the pipe, and smoke it. And after she has smoked all of her own shit, she goes out to the street, and she stands on the corner.

Sierra and some of his friends had shirts for sale that said THIS IS THE NEW LITERATURE. I overheard a lot of people at the break talking to Sierra about how they identified, how they knew those characters.

After the break, Michelle said that Ben said he would have stayed but he had to pick up his kids, and also his leg really hurt (his leg was in a cast.)

Then Brian read, and I am thinking now how much his and Sierra’s readings both wrestled with this problem of writing and death, writing and loss. I have all these quotes from Brian’s reading, beginning with “no Adam after you,” this book written about the death of that first great love, and the first section of the book circles the enormous problem of what writing cannot do and wants to do, “though I can write rain into the picture,” or “make anything happen,” it is still this, “the lyric which can’t keep anything real.” Brian paused between sections to say more about the book, and about grieving, and how nobody ever tells you that when you come out of the space of grieving, there is a loss there too, in that being with one’s grief also keeps one close to the lost person. And how moving out of, or away from that keen pain is also moving away from the person. How one re-enters the world but the terms have changed. Brian closed with his entry from Encyclopedia v. 2, somehow I didn’t write down what the entry was for? It was a scene of fucking, Brian said “there is rhythm in a list” and that had to do with fucking too, and again about language, what’s outside, and what's inside, sensory derailment including the brain, “it is hard to say where our minds went.” I also wrote down “labial and dental” and indeed I felt myself even, tongued, in a great and luxurious way by the appearance of these feminine words in a piece about two men fucking, how big the piece was in this way, thank god I felt in my body as Brian read, “how sacrum,” and “weren’t we plush,” this piece with assholes, with “labial and dental.”

After the reading I talked a little bit with Michelle about some of her reasons for starting the series and she spoke very specifically about wanting to bring together people from different communities and to always include both poets and fiction and other prose writers, and I thought wow how appropriate for my first assignment, somehow I majorly lucked out! And I felt in myself the kind of excitement that comes from being pushed in so many directions in one evening, of not always being sure how to hear what I listened to. I asked Michelle if she might write a little bit more about why she started the series. I’ll be posting that writing from her here, soon.