On Sunday, March 12th, the Boulder Office of Arts and Culture and the Boulder Writer’s Warehouse, the latter headed up by area poet/celestial witch goddess ellie swennson, collaborated in the dedication of a piece of public art. I had spent the early part of that day at Frozen Dead Guy Days in Nederland for the Frozen Dead Poets Slam, where I watched heavyweights like Anne Sexton, Gil Scott Heron and Shel Silverstein duke it out in a brutal, no-holds-barred epic battle while the snow whorled around us like an ice planet being born. Thomas Jefferson read the Declaration of Independence to a captive audience in the Pioneer, Robert Frost read three poems as one to sneak in some extra points, and Sylvia Plath opened her performance with a piece by Denver local Roseanna Freschette. I represented d.a. levy, which is completely irrelevent but which I mention in case you haven’t heard of him. In the end, it came down to sudden death between Jim Morisson and John Keats over a bottle of whiskey and the praise of poets everywhere. To the victor go the spoils, and when the dust settled, there was Keats sitting on the giant spool, drinking whiskey out of a Grecian urn and sharing it with a nightingale.
When I arrived at 15th and Pearl, where the sculpture, Constellatory by Rebecca DiDomenico, was to be dedicated, I found ellie, Sarah Richards Graba, and Angelica Barraza stringing lights from tree to rock to moose antler. Other poets had come too, including fellow Naropa grad Joseph Navarro and editor/curator of Dirt Zine Renee Marino. There were hot coffee and star-shaped refreshments on a nearby table, featuring starfruit, starmelon, starcrackers and starcheese, and two fishbowls on the ground full of words, phrases, and secrets about the moon. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a falling starmelon, and I quickly and quietly made a wish.
After a brief introduction to the event, where notably not a single person groaned or stormed away loudly stomping their feet at the mention of poetry, Rebecca explained what the sculpture meant to her and shared a poem of her own. Constellatory is a round metal disk about 5 feet in diameter, standing on its side and pocked with holes of various sizes which are lit from the inside and connected by engraved lines imagining the constellations they might form. Or else it might be a moon with its craters still glowing from the heat of impact, or else a lost data disk from a supercomputer made by giants. To Rebecca, it was all of these things. “We utilize the stars to tell stories. We wish upon the stars. We use the stars to navigate our way. Stars remind us of the infinite, something mysterious deep inside our own selves.” These stories, she explained, create connections between us, like stars in our own small constellations, or data we store in the celestial sphere to later download into each other’s hearts.
Next, ellie opened the poetry segment in a dress made of thousands of tiny stars, their light pulsing and shimmering off the sculpture behind her with each passing word. She began with “Ego” by Denise Duhamel, a poem about making peace with cosmic scale, and followed it up with a love poem to the moon which was also an incantation. “smooth curves set potent traps/ for lonely fingers/ good lord/ what an arrival.” I then read my poem, which was some weird stuff about space travel most likely. Oddly, I couldn’t help but notice that no one had run off in a tantrum yet, or shouted, “Aw jeez not poetry!” Instead, the audience seemed genuinely spellbound. I was confused and a bit disconcerted, but I did my best not to think about it.
After I read my poem, Sarah explained that hers had originally been composed for Tanabata/Chilseok/Qixi, an Asian holiday celebrating the love of the weaver-princess and the herder, two deities who manifest in the night sky as the stars Vega and Altair. “According to legend, the Milky Way is a river that separates these lovers, and they are allowed to meet only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the lunisolar calendar. On this day, the birds build themselves into a bridge over the Milky Way so the two can meet.” As she delved into her piece, I continued to observe the profound delight on the listeners faces with growing suspicion and fear. Was this some kind of trick? Didn’t they realize this was poetry they were listening to? “Dear one,” Sarah read on, “let us be brave.”
To close the set, Angelica read her poem, “Water Song,” which arrayed a litany of the ways water expresses itself, from the body to the bone-heavy earth to clouds disappearing. “water welt/ water ache/ apparitions of ghost water/ haunting crevasses on the moon.” This poem, like the others, had a magical quality to it, like a prayer or invocation. The audience were held in sway, as if they were completely under the poet’s power. Was it the full moon that was causing them all to behave so strangely? Had they eaten some bad starcheese? I began to shiver and sweat. Something unusual was definitely going on here.
When we had finished, ellie invited everyone present to choose words and phrases from the two fishbowls and pin them to the strings of lights we’d put up earlier to form collaborative verbal constellations, an interactive cosmos of language and light. To my total shock, everyone present did exactly that, pulling words indiscriminately, completely without apprehension or self-judgment. What on earth was happening?! Had they forgotten that poetry was the archnemesis of every schoolchild, that most elitist and incomprehensible of ivory tower arts, utterly inaccessible to the layperson? Had they truly realized it was poetry they were composing now, without regard for whether it was “good enough to publish,” or would make them more attractive to the gender and sexuality of their choice? My head swam for a moment and I had to sit down to eat some starcheese with starcrackers and a bit of starfruit to calm my nerves, and after a little while, ellie called us back up to read the poem the audience had created. “What do you want us to do,” I asked? “Take turns, call and response, overlap our voices?” “Do your weird Naropa shit,” she replied with authority, and we got right to it.
When it was all over, I looked around and took stock. Everything I believed in was being called into question. Random passersby were stopping to read and share the collaborative poem with each other. Total strangers were complimenting us on our own poems and asking for writing advice. They even requested an encore performance. I was in such a daze that I hardly noticed when ellie passed me the W-9. “Here ya go,” she probably said, and handed me a check. The City of Boulder had paid us. In money. This couldn’t be! Had I slipped into some kind of wacky alternate dimension where poetry was appreciated as much as any other art? It was as if they recognized and acknowledged the thousands of hours of hard work we had put into honing our crafts, and the tens of thousands of dollars into debt we had gone for our degrees. All those articles declaring that poetry was dead… could they possibly have been mistaken? How could so many of the world’s greatest critical minds be so massively and terribly wrong?
At last we ended up at Shine Restaurant and Gathering Place, where we ran into Wes Adams of ALOC Media and host of Jazzetry Night, an evening of poetic and musical improvisation that occurs every third Wesnesday at The Laughing Goat. Wes immediately recognized us as poets and had the restaurant cleared for us, after which he summoned a litter to carry us to our table. We were draped in velvet and given golden scepters and jewelled crowns and one or two complimentary drinks while Wes called for a jester to juggle and make magic for our amusement. A couple of times the jester pretended to get hurt in funny ways, and we all laughed amiably. Perhaps this wasn’t so unusual after all. “This is how poets should always be treated,” I declared. ellie concurred. “By the way,” she asked, “what was it you wished for? When the starmelon fell?” I thought about it. “Why tell you?” I said. “It’s already come true.”
Eric Raanan Fischman has been a correspondent, contributor, and calendar updater for the Boulder Poetry Tribe. A graduate of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics MFA program, his first collection, “Mordy Gets Enlightened,” is forthcoming.