Thursday, March 04, 2010

Poetic Profile: Aaren Perry

1)How would you describe your poetry?

The poems in the Open Fire book and Mercury Calling CD are rave, paean, anaphora, witness, documentary, travelogue, dialog, parody, critique, protest, nature, worship and others. They’re jammed with images and metaphors. And some of them are too long for an era of iphone apps and give it to me now. But I had a lot of fun writing them. These were the ones Whirlwind wanted to publish.

I write in different idioms and forms. Story I guess because I was influenced by oral tradition poets, from African Diaspora and American Indian writers to ecstatic and activist writers. The poems I am writing right now for my new book, Shipping and Receiving, are more meditative and restrained and in a more narrow range of styles. Hopefully the poems transport a reader and make a reader feel something new and different, something positive. They are definitely journeys for me. Humor, praise, slam, rhyme, conversation, song? Doesn’t matter. The inspiration finds its own form. If I was writing for the bling or a buyer I’d be in film or in hip hop or on wall street. And I certainly don’t do poetry to pay bills or to keep myself in a trance or to distract myself, nor to entertain the masses. I do it as a conscientious spiritual practice to wake up. Doesn’t always work but I try.

I am reading with Nzadi Keita coming up. I will never forget her description. Once she heard me read and she was like, “you need to curb your enthusiasm, your poems are like standing in a downpour.” That was a long time ago. I guess if you ask 10 poets to “describe” my poems, you’d get at least 11 different answers. Elaine Terranova said that I have “verve.” She said her favorite parts of my work are “the high-energy passages where the words seem to bloom out of each other.” Poet, Lamont Steptoe said I am “a poet’s poet.” He said my voice is “oracular, performative, playful, honest and infused with a cosmic wisdom and shamanic humor.”

Dennis Brutus, who was in jail with Mandela, one of my global heroes -- we very unfortunately lost him this year -- said that I “superbly handle the music of poetry.” And one of my teachers, Betsy Sholl, who started the press, Alice James Books, said my work is “emotionally compelling and emotionally hot” and that I “balance poetry and experience, denying the demands of neither.” That’s a lot coming from a widely respected feminist academic whose work is masterful in its fiery drive and narrative momentum. I write for both the page and the stage. But it was definitely the page that got me started.

2) How does your poetry fit into your everyday life?

Well, it doesn’t really. I have to fit it in. I use poetry as a mindfulness practice. I practice it constantly like meditation, taking notes along the way then writing at a regular time. I track where my poems come from, where they reside, where they’re going? I fit it in by keeping a ledger with me at all times to capture the flashes of muse. I fit it in by consulting with teachers about how to teach poetry. It’s one way of staying human in a time of flash mobs and regressive public policy. What do you do with this awareness? Not deny it? Poetry gives me a discipline and form for stability during tough times. Many of the traditional prosody structures, even the Persian Ghazal, are little rhetorical structures to help make sense out of chaos. I’m confident that exposure to poetics can train the mind in dealing more skillfully with change, dealing with not knowing everything. And being OK with not knowing is essential in getting one’s ego out of the way of the next poem or your next project. When that happens it leaves more room for miracles. When I flip open that blank page it’s my way of staying open to miracle. Everyday I wake up and tell myself that I am ready to witness a miracle.

Sounds crazy but watch “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” or read Jerry Hicks’ books and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Science is finally proving what Buddhists and other original peoples have always said, that everything is constantly changing. Language is a perfect example, a total moving target. Heisenberg called it the Uncertainty principal (that it is impossible to determine the position and velocity of an electron). Better yet, John Keats called it Negative Capability, the ability to be OK with and accept uncertainty rather than fighting it. Good poetry skillfully does this. How does it fit in? Each poet fits it in in a different way.

Another way I fit it in is going to readings and festivals. In most countries outside the US poetry is highly revered and respected. I would love to have gone to the Jaipur Literary Festival for example to meet writers like Arundhati Roy, Alexander McCall Smith, Amit Chaudhuri, Claire Tomalin, Hindi poet Gulzar, Pavan Varma. The world is too small and too smart now for this country to lag behind in cultural literacy. Kids in India know our writers, why should our kids not know theirs? Or here’s a hemispheric project I did. I picked up a book of poems in Cuba by this awesome Brazilian poet, Cesi Fernandes de Asis, who writes using native Juarani language. It was translated by the Cuban poet into Spanish. It won a Case de Las Americas award. I translated it into English. There are so many global poetry festivals now. 2010 is the year of the Dodge Festival; it has revived itself in Newark, NJ. Those are some of the finest socially conscious poets writing in English. Festivals and readings are a way of fitting poetry into my life, sustenance as a writer. I have to keep that chair at the table for the muse or poetry passes by my vacancy sign.

What was it the gospel of Thomas and others have said? If you bring forth the authenticity that is within you, you will thrive. If you do not, what is within you will kill you. That means if you have one inkling you should be doing something in this life, for everyone’s sake, and at the risk of losing everything you think you have, do it. Geothe said it better with his famous quote about commitment (well, it is attributed to him): “…the moment one commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. Whatever you dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius and magic in it.” Wow, ‘then providence moves too….’

3) What poets and other authors inspire you?

Authors who travel or are international in scope. Barry Lopez told me a guy asked him what his daughter should do since she wanted to be a famous author. He told the guy, tell your daughter to get out of town. She must travel. In order to be a good writer you need to know who you are, to know who you are you need to know where you come from, to know where you come from you need to leave it and come back! And then, like Thomas Wolfe said, “you can never go home again.” Why? Because after you leave, you are different. You now see home and self anew. You changed. Now you can write. I like authors who are about revealing rather than concealing. That is really the job of a poet, to reveal, whereas a politician’s job is often to conceal.

I’m always most influenced by the hundreds of poets I’ve met, heard, or interviewed for radio or TV. I can picture their faces and hear their words. I’ve been listening to Amiri Baraka since 1981. He is one of the great intellectual and jazz poets of our time. His willingness to consistently and avidly rebel against oppression in poetry combined with his flexibility in redefining himself throughout his life is inspirational. This is particularly interesting against the backdrop of the Governor of NJ taking away Baraka’s Poet Laureateship then the Governor shooting himself in the foot and getting kicked out of office for his escapades. Stanley Kunitz is inspirational. He died two years ago after writing during more decades than any poet on record. He began writing when he was nine and lived to be 100.

People like Eileen D’Angelo and Larry Robin are inspirational in that they work tirelessly to support poets. John Fox is inspirational in his book Poetic Medicine. There are many authors in all genres within a stone’s throw of this bookstore who are totally inspirational. Susan Windle is someone who consistently uses poetry to heal, shelter, invite social change and build community. She picked up where, god rest his soul, Gil Ott left off. Gil was a luminary poet and neighbor of the Blue Marble.

There are too many awesome authors to mention who I either met here or who live here. You wander around Philly and bump into MacArthur fellows, NEA fellows, Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Awards winners, PEW fellows, real history makers all over Philadelphia. Tons of local authors who are about to publish books that are going to make it: Merrick Rosenberg, James Villareal, yes, “Mr. V” who taught Latin across the street at Henry for 100 years. And Victoria Pendragon, she’s got a new autobio coming out.

Sonia Sanchez is still an inspiration for me today on the page and the stage. She just released a new book and is touring. Sonia Sanchez asks audiences if they can go 24 hours without “dissing” someone or saying negative things. They say, sure. Then she asks, how about 2 or 3 days? How about a week? People role their eyes. I can’t go that long! Poetry is the same way. What you are putting out into the world? Each word is an opportunity for nonviolence. What is coming out of your mouth, onto the page, into history? Some people are wielding a knife when they write, some doing a strip or drag show. Dunn says, when I write at night its like a small fire. When I write it’s like Tonglen meditation. I am taking into my mind, into my heart the suffering of beings and replacing it with compassion.

Poetry is for me a practice of nonviolence and mindfulness. Alright, if you don’t want to take it that far, at least check out Eleanor Wilnor’s concept of aesthetic distance. Similar concept. Whatever you compare it to, it’s that what you do with thoughts that arise significantly affects the world. This is where the classic polemical argument comes in -- Ginsberg is arguing with Richard Hugo. Ginsberg, who I met at Swarthmore, believed strongly in the Buddhist notion of first-thought-best-thought. Go with it and keep writing.

Then Richard Hugo and probably Wilner and many others would say, first-thought-trick. Your first thought needs to be written out to get to your second, third and fourth thought because that’s where the poetry and insight is. Your first thought may be automatic mind trying to keep you safe in a cocoon of habit. Poetry breaks open that cocoon. Poetry is not done for safety. It’s a workshop of wands and potions and dreams and portals. Poetics appears at the cutting edge of human consciousness for a reason.

4) How does the community of Philadelphia play a part in your poetry?

I published with a Philadelphia press, taught at Philadelphia institutions. I’ve done a lot of writing from the photography of Philadelphia artists Julia Lehman, Conrad Louis Charles, and artists like Amy Walsh and Cindy Back. Conrad is back in Haiti now. Philly is one of the most intense literary scenes in the country. You can’t write in isolation here. In 1985 there was one or two poetry readings a week in Philadelphia, outside the walls of academe, at Bacchanal or McGlinchy’s. Since the mid-90s there are several per night on every side of town.

Mad Poets Society alone has 98 different poetry readings this year. I’m reading again at the 14th annual 100Poets reading at Moonstone Art Center -- good example of the expansive reach of Philly poets. There you have Pulitzer Prize winners rubbing elbows with aspiring novices. Outside academe, artist support organizations have been instrumental in keeping the poetry scene alive for decades. If it weren’t for people like Gerry Givnish and funders who keep things going, parts of Philly would have the cultural literacy quotient of 1950s Mississippi. Philly is like what Carlos Fuentes used to say about Latin America -- it defies the fictional imagination. You don’t need much imagination to wrote here; if you want to write a novel just go eavesdrop in a Philly café. All you have to do for inspiration here is stand on the corner and listen. Listening? First tool of a writer.

I think Philly is also a more intense linguistic nexus than almost any other city in the US. I think of the Philly region as an aural melting pot of idioms drawn from the poor working class South, from rural working class PA, from old WASP wealth, from the intellectual north and ivory towers, and from working class immigrants from all parts of the globe. Race and culture crash against the stone wall of class in Philly like wrecking balls. It is this social tectonic pressure on the soft stone of language that forces out the expendable fuel of new thought. The benefits are multifold. But the bad bi-products here include rampant malapropisms, slang and broken grammar. And that goes for the entire region. We think we understand someone because of the sentence they just uttered but we may not fully. The community support network for writers in Philadelphia is great. You can be honest with people without them stuffing their cheese steak in your face and they will be honest with you. That’s one thing good community requires is honest feedback and candid conversations. You know what happens without that.

5) What is the last book that you read that you really enjoyed? Tell our Big Blue Marble community a little about it.

Well, I just finished a volume of Seminary Transcripts by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche but that’s another discussion. “Business Relationships That Last!” Really. What can I say? I’m an Organizational Development consultant by day…. I’m always re-reading the best selling poet in America, an Iranian Sufi, Rumi! Along with Hafiz. I am trying to read Heather McHugh again since she got the MacArthur Award. I read a little at a time. I went back and read some of Lucille Clifton who died last week. Don Belton, Germantown novelist also died two months ago, he’s worth reading. One of my teachers, Jack Myers also just passed. He is an exemplary early mindfulness poet.

I recently read poetry books by Robert Haas, Jane Hirschfield, Taha Muhamad Ali, Tony Hoagland. One of the books I most enjoyed recently was Stephen Dunn’s New and Selected Poems. Great NJ author. I love his poems where famous people show up in Podunk, Jersey towns. He pulls off metaphysical epiphany without leaving you stranded or making you work too hard. He is careful with the heart of his poems. If there was a one-poet, one-Philadelphia book I would recommend Lamont Steptoe. I stopped reading him for a while but now he has released some incredible work with “Oracular Rumblings.” This is a collection by someone who really accesses something transformational in poetry.

If parents are looking for an adolescent fiction writer for their kids, look up Barbara Shoup’s books. To my son I read “Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes,” “Let’s Eat,” “The Story of the Root Children,” and some Tibetan Fairy Tales. But I could read him the phone book. I make up stories to go with pictures. He likes to chew on whatever book he is ‘reading,’ not to be confused with the wonderful book, “The Boy Who Ate Words.” I am writing some new children’s stories for him. “Unconditional Parenting” and “Becoming Attached,” along with the Dr. Sears books are some of what we read on parenting.

Aaren Perry has performed his work at venues like the Nuyorican, the Kimmel Center, the World Café, the Fringe Festival. With Education Action Resources, he taught nonviolence and writing workshops to all ages at schools and colleges on the East Coast and in the Midwest for 20 years. Perry has published in Critique Magazine, Mad Poets Review, Tyme Anthology, Xconnect Magazine, Blue Guitar, Painted Bride Quarterly, Long Shot Review, and others. His work has appeared on National Public Radio and on regional television broadcasts. He produced and directed Page2Stage, the longest running all-poetry TV show in the country on Cable 54. Bilingual and holding an MFA from Vermont College, he received a PA Council on the Arts Grant. He works as an organizational development consultant at Team Builders Plus. His books OPEN FIRE (Whirlwind Press, 2004), POETRY ACROSS THE CURRICULUM: An Action Guide for Elementary Teachers (Pearson, 1997), as well as his spokenword CD, MERCURY CALLING (MelodyVision, 2000) are available at bookstores and by emailing

1 comment:

Mbali Umchlaba Umoja said...

That was a journey down memory lane. Been wanting to speak with you.