The cruellest month

Volatile April has always figured conspicuously in the world of poetry. It’s the month that Chaucer’s pilgrims set off on their way to Canterbury, and the month that Paul Revere made his fateful midnight ride (immortalized by Longfellow in verse). T.S. Eliot — in “The Waste Land” — offered a pessimistic echo of Chaucer, calling April “the cruellest month.”

Consequently, it seems more than fitting that April has been designated National Poetry Month.

What are local scribes up to? Well, Asheville and Western North Carolina have long been home to a strong literary scene sheltering many successful poets, small presses and venues providing opportunities for both new voices and established poets — among them Kathryn Stripling Byer, David Brendan Hopes, Glenis Redmond, Keith Flynn, Marijo Moore and Thomas Rain Crowe — to be heard.

Asheville boasts Urthona Press, which publishes local poets; Poetry Alive!, a group that sends teams of performing poets all over the country; and The Writer’s Workshop, a nonprofit literary organization now celebrating its 15th anniversary. Downtown coffeehouses like Beanstreets, Vincent’s Ear and Malaprop’s host frequent open-mic nights for poets, and The Asheville Poetry Review is distributed in 35 states and 5 countries in Europe. In verdant Jackson County, we find Cullowhee’s New Native Press — and the list goes on.

Suffice to say that poetry is alive and well in Western North Carolina.

While there are always plenty of events brewing in and around Asheville to keep both writers and lovers of literature happy, the action is duly accelerated this month, with readings by many well-known poets and the publication of several books of poetry (as well as books by, for and about poets) in the immediate forecast.

Poets Keith Flynn and Menna Elfyn will give a reading at Mars Hill College’s Broyhill Chapel on April 16, beginning at 3 p.m. Flynn, a UNCA graduate, is the author of two books of poetry — The Talking Drum (Metropolis Communications, 199l ), and The Book of Monsters (Urthona Press, 1994) — and is founder and managing editor of The Asheville Poetry Review. His third collection of poems, The Lost Sea, will be published by Iris Press in September.

Elfyn, long famous in her native Wales, has been publishing poetry since 1976. But before 1995 (the year her first bilingual book appeared), her work was published exclusively in Welsh — which rather limited her audience, to say the least. Her second bilingual volume, Cell Angel (Bloodaxe Press, 1996), found favorable purchase with both critics and a newly expanded fan base.

Poets Glenis Redmond and Laura Hope-Gill will join forces at the Grey Eagle on April 23. Both women are veterans of the Asheville performance-poetry scene, but that date will mark the first time they’ve performed together (the show starts at 8 p.m.). In the last five years, Hope-Gill founded the women’s poetry group A Cafe of One’s Own — which still meets at Malaprop’s — and received her M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College.

According to Hope-Gill, “I called Glenis from the middle of a pasture and said, ‘Let’s do an evening of animal poems.’ She said yes.” (This performance will be Hope-Gill’s first reading in three years.)

Award-winning performance poet Redmond, the author of two poetry chapbooks, is a multimedia favorite — offering a full-length video titled Mama’s Magic (based on one of her works), as well as an upcoming audio cassette. Among her other artistic distinctions, Redmond has placed in the National Poetry Slam’s top ranks for the past six years.

Those who aren’t still siphoning their souls into their tax returns on April 15 can invest those tortured entities in Asheville poet/painter/professor/etc. David Brendan Hopes, who will read from his Pulitzer Prize-nominated memoir A Childhood in the Milky Way (University of Akron Press, 1999) at Asheville Mall’s B. Dalton Booksellers, beginning at 3 p.m.

But the Ohio-born Hopes is not the sole missing link connecting that state, Western North Carolina and poetry this April. Thomas Rain Crowe’s local New Native Press — in collaboration with several other small presses from around the country — will soon release Larry Smith’s authorized biography of poet/Ohio native Kenneth Patchen, called Kenneth Patchen: Rebel Poet in America (Bottom Dog Press et al, 2000). The publication of the Patchen biography is just the latest accomplishment for New Native Press, whose other notable ventures include a major anthology of Celtic poetry, as well as a foray into the brave new world of electronic publishing, in the form of a downloadable novel.

Smith — an English professor at Bowling Green State University — spent nine years researching Patchen’s life, conducting extensive interviews with his wife, Miriam, and his associates Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jonathan Williams, as well as studying Patchen’s correspondence with such other notable friends as Henry Miller, e.e. cummings and Allen Ginsberg.

Publisher Crowe, himself a poet, comments: “Kenneth Patchen may be, directly or indirectly, the most important influence on our generation’s poetic voice. Along with the likes of Jack Spicer, Bob Kaufman, Jack Hirschman, Philip Lamantia and the Beats, Patchen still sings to us.”

Poetry has never been about money or fame (well, maybe a bit of the latter). It’s a labor of love — and those who carry the torch will find much to foster their journey in this, the cruellest month.

Call 689-1234, 232-5800, or 298-7711 for info about the Flynn/Elfyn, Redmond/Hope-Gill, or Hopes readings, respectively.

You Are Still An Animal

You get to the point you feel
You can move through anything. It will break apart from you
The moment that you touch it, anyway.
And you get to the point you feel
You can talk your way out of anything. The words will have
A different meaning once you’ve said them, anyway.

But you are still an animal.
You are still so real you feel your body will betray you
Some night, when the world’s asleep
And the night enters you with its paws and jowls, combines
You with the stars even leopards hide from.

The night will carry you like a cub
By the scruff and roar of your dreams that are never quiet
And haven’t been for years. When day comes,
You wish that it would clothe you
Then you would not be so tired.

You get to the point where you feel
Every breath the world exhales on you pushes you back into
The wind. You get to the point where you think
The thoughts you once had are useless and leave them

In a box on someone else’s porch
With a dollar for the forgiveness you owe
Everyone you ever crazed, chased, made fall to the ground in
Your hunger and another to say you’re sorry.

It was once a good thing to walk up high on two legs,
Bi-ped lifted to the sun but now
The ground is rising, something’s growing
Back that makes you
Slow your heart while sleeping.
So the winter goes on longer,
Claw the flesh from the dying day
While the night in you grows stronger.

— by Laura Hope-Gill,
from Animal Poems

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