Between the strapped-for-cash allure of $2 Tuesday and hip glitz of Fanny Pack Thursday, a poetry reading finds its home at Mother Bar & Restaurant on Edgewood Avenue in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. It’s Sunday afternoon and the bar is just opening. “Are you here to interview for a security job?” asks the guy at the door, half-asking, half-looking at his phone. “No,” I tell him, knowing he already knows the answer, “We’re here for the poetry reading.” He looks up. “Oh, yeah,” he says, “The poetry thing.” The word “thing” droops, bottoms out. He looks at his phone. If you’re someone who often finds themselves at readings, you’re familiar with this sort of effect. The poetry thing. I imagine the annoying pseudo-literary tastemaker Dana Gioia somewhere, eating a steak, whatever. I cringe. “You can go in,” he adds, reassuring us of nothing. In the cool dark haven of the bar I’m thinking, “Can karaoke matter?” The softly deadened scent of bleach mixed with alcohol is in the air, the ghost of another rad Saturday night. It smells like an answer. I look at my phone.
I’m not sure if anyone shows up for the security job interview, though a crowd quickly fills the upstairs bar at Mother to hear poets Monica Fambrough, Brett Fletcher Lauer and Ginger Ko read their work. Hosted by Amy McDaniel, founder of the small press 421 Atlanta and editor of the literary site Real Pants, the atmosphere is warm, talkative and supported by a spread of gorgeously made Kookie House cupcakes. I’m choosing between a cucumber margarita and a Manhattan. Friends pour in. I pick up a vegan chocolate cupcake, a sugary little LeWitt, and take a seat on the floor up front. Everyone huddles in closer. I imagine Dana Gioia somewhere, alone. Dana Gioia gets none of these cupcakes. The microphone crackles. Amy turns it up. The poetry thing. The poetry thing. I think of a line from an Alice Notley poem, “Suspended. That’s always been my state.” As the reading began, we all hovered there, in its sounds.
“I’m a daughter and used to remaining unmentioned.”
Ginger Ko, currently a Ph.D. student in the creative writing program at the University of Georgia in Athens, was the first reader. Expansive and urgent, Ko read from her debut book Motherlover from Bloof Books as well as a forthcoming chapbook, Comorbid, from Lark Books. Angled into the crisis of racialized and gendered silencing, especially in literary spaces, Ko’s poems are brilliant (as in shining) crystal beginnings. In other words, they prepare a way and music for thinking through what’s brutal. Most importantly, her poems describe that brutality in our shared moment, animating its failed logic and insisting on an alternative. “White men who identify / as Asian are always tea-drinking / poet ninjas,” her poem “Consciousness” begins, citing the publication in The Best American Poetry 2015 of a poem written by a white male under the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou. These so-called “literary controversies” are bluntly reframed in Ko’s poems as the violent manifestations of racism that they are. “(I said / I don’t know how to be around / these unthinking people,” the poem continues. “(I said / it’s not that they’re unthinking / it’s that they hate to think of you.))”
“I called it an experiment to hide my desperation, referred to it as an art project in which I was investigating the genre of missed connections. I was too lonely to think about ethics or intentions.”
Visiting from Brooklyn where he works as deputy director of the Poetry Society of America and poetry editor of A Public Space, Brett Fletcher Lauer read from his new memoir Fake Missed Connections. Introduced as a work that “shows the formal invention that we go through every day in our life story project” via our construction of online profiles and avatars, Lauer’s book builds a narrative around, as he mentioned before his reading, the personal fallout resulting from a divorce and the author’s subsequent movement back into sociality and dating, no matter how socially artificial, by writing fake missed connections on Craigslist. Reminiscent of Brian Oliu’s book of funny, moving, off-the-wall fake missed connections, So You Know It’s Me, published by Tiny Hardcore Press in 2011, Lauer’s reading promised to show a poetic, formal exploration of a crisis within masculine narratives of romantic loss in the age of the Internet. Books like these raise necessary questions for our cultural moment’s ongoing redefinition of inclusivity and literary representations of gender. For instance, could there be a male equivalent of Maggie Nelson’s incredible Bluets? Is it possible for young male writers to undo and reframe masculinity? However, listening to Lauer’s deadpan reading style, marked by a familiar tone of faux-naïve quirkiness and world-weariness, the project, with its overtly male conceptual privileges of anonymity and aesthetic intent, felt off. “It was around this time that I also began compulsively checking missed connections out of loneliness and boredom, which are the same,” writes Lauer, preparing to compile his first missed connection. “Even with my dating profile, which featured a photo of me wearing a horse mask, my phone wasn’t ringing. Nothing was happening. I decided to make something happen.” Rather than embarrassment or vulnerability, passages like these came off as quintessentially nerd-macho. Prose that narrates itself as “an art project,” an Internet experiment in persona, without the brutal sound of vulnerability embedded in it, is bound to fall away from emotional impact into the flat texture of a social media news feed.
“If you’re looking for bread. This is not bread.”
Monica Fambrough was the final reader at Mother, sharing work from her first collection of poems, Softcover, published by the Atlanta-based small press Natural History Press. Fambrough’s poems explored the narratives and details of growing up (in the 1970s, as one poem described) and parenting, built in what sounded like short lines made of quiet, declarative, lyric statements holding in the sounds of domestic flux, love and the casual dreams of living well. Imagine Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day with the volume turned way down. One poem’s listing of outlandish alternative baby names, including “Road Warrior, Go-getter, Never-ever,” stood out as particularly moving in Fambrough’s lyric mode, citing the ongoing impossibility of identifying love — its sources and names — amidst the chaotic movements of being within that love while adding to it with another. A calmness pervaded Fambrough’s reading that not even a 20-second parade of roaring motorcycles outside on Edgewood could disturb.
After the reading, we were all free to go home and watch the Oscars. But who cares? There was work to be done, Malaysian food to be eaten with a new friend named Ginger and more upcoming poetry readings in Atlanta to look forward to.