Monday, January 15, 2007

Hermetic or Transparent? John Yau Reads

(Art by Jasper Johns: 0 through 9)

"Post-Modern life, you can't do anything right!" mourned John Yau as he warmed up in his reading at the Vermont Studio Center (Johnson) this evening. He was talking about the criticism he got for writing a poem in the voice of his baby daughter (now about 4 and sleeping in her mother's lap nearby), but he could as easily have referred to the sprained knee that relocated the reading, gained in a slippery winter storm today.

Yau read from his new book, PARADISO DIASPORA (note that the two words are anagrams of each other), including the long and tasty "In the Kingdom of Poetry." He slipped smoothly into his Egyptian sonnets ("A, becauses Egyptians never wrote sonnets, and B, because I've never been to Egypt"), which result in word strings like "cursing there's no canopic jar to piss in" and "riding a crocodile, gold head held high," as well as "a human jar with coiled hair," and closing with "and your face greets you from a wall you've seen before in a black mirror."

I liked his wacky 9-11 "A Revised Guide to the Ruins in New York City," and one of Cerise's poems (that's his daughter; the poems all begin with something the very young lady has said, in her own words). I also enjoyed hearing Yau talk about his passion for writing pantoums ("I go through peridos when I just write one after another -- and then I hate 'em all"), and he read aloud two that he was liking this time: "Self-Portrait by Francis Picabia" and "The Child's Story Under Duress," which opens, "A french fry stuck its tongue out at you."

The Studio Center brings together both visual artists and writers for its sessions, and Yau brings both into his work, as he is at least as serious an art critic as he is poet (and prof. at Rutgers). One result of this mingling is that the after-reading questions dare to truly question the work. After explaining the pantoum form to one artist and replying to his wife's question about his obsession (her term) with the painter Jasper Johns, Yau heard from another artist who said, "I understood one of your poems and none of the others -- are you trying to have that effect?" Yau replied directly:

"I'm not trying to write poems that people don't understand, but I'm trying to write poems that go beyond MY understanding."

He pushed this into more concrete terms by bringing back the french fry line and explaining that to him the line "is kind of inherently interesting," with its suggestion of a child's cartoon. And then there's the challenge of how to follow "a line that is complete in itself."

Most intriguing to me, though, was the discussion of why Yau's reaction to the Jasper Johns paintings is driving him to write a second book on them (the first came out in 1995). A listener inserted an extra question, asking what it is that other people miss about Johns, and Yau grasps. Yau's response:

"Everyone says Johns is hermetic and Andy Warhol is transparent. But if you're a poet, or a certain kind of poet, being hermetic is not necessarily a bad thing, and being transparent is horrible."

To Yau, "hermetic" indicates possessing a body of knowledge before you come to the world -- in this case, knowledge of Kabbala. He segued into the kinds of knowledge and work he demands of his students, whether in poetry or art criticism: He has rules, including a demand for consistent grammar and, in art criticism, a drive for fact rather than opinion. "If you choose not to know how to write, you're choosing to be ignorant," he conclued. "And that's unacceptable to me."

Next at the Vermont Studio Center: Howard Norman on January 29. Be sure to check with the center on the day of the reading to be sure Winter hasn't prevented the author's arrival: 802-635-2727.

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