#LitBeat: “How you talked! And how I listened”: The AWP 2012 Poet Laureate Panel
On March 3rd, in the Chicago Hilton’s 2000-seat International Ballroom, Poetry’s senior editor Don Share introduced a poet who currently holds a title stretching all the way back to before Chaucer, her most well revered predecessor in the role. He told the audience that Carol Ann Duffy is the UK’s “first female poet laureate”—big round of applause from audience—“the UK’s first Scottish poet laureate”—another big round—“and their first poet laureate of the twenty-first century”—yet another big round. Taking the mic, Duffy said “you know, I hear all these ‘firsts’ being applied to me… what I’m most proud of, though, is being the first gay poet laureate.”
In a stately, orotund tone Duffy began with a reading of three reclamations of classical mythology from her 1999 collection The World’s Wife: “Mrs Midas,” “Mrs Tiresias,” and “Mrs Faust.” Duffy was a consummate reader, with her performance at times almost seeming like an actor reciting a soliloquy. She read: “And this is my lover, I said, / the one time we met / at a glittering ball / under the lights,” She paused—looking pointedly up at one of the vast chandeliers in the ceiling of the Hilton ballroom, composed of probably 10,000 light bulbs, before continuing: “Among tinkling glass, / and watched the way he stared / at her violet eyes.”
To finish her performance, Duffy read “Premonitions,” which she explained was about how she felt like she first truly met her mother in her mother’s last minutes of life:
How you talked! And how I listened,
spellbound, humbled, daughterly,
to your tall tales, your wise words,
the joy of your accent, unenglish, dancey, humorous;
watching your ash hair flare and redden,
the loving litany of who we had been
making me place my hands in your warm hands,
younger than mine are now.
Then time only the moon. And the balm of dusk.
And you my mother.
The room, full of intent faces with closed eyes, came alive and sprang up to a standing ovation.
When Share had resettled the crowd to introduce America’s poet laureate, Philip Levine, it felt a little like a parody of David Foster Wallace’s “Death is Not the End,” which describes a superfluously successful writer as “a poet known in American literary circles as ‘the poet’s poet’ or sometimes simply ‘the Poet’” and describes all of the awards awarded to ‘the Poet’, which also happen to be the awards that have been awarded to Philip Levine, which is all of them.
Levine also gave a theatrical reading: he read his poems as if they were stories, without pausing at the line breaks, and he gesticulated to illustrate the narrated events: his free hand tumbled circularly downward as he said the phrase “dropped the pencil.”
He had the demeanor of a mischievous kid who’d stumbled into a bit of luck. “Have you ever heard of a thing called the prose poem? All this time when I thought I was writing prose, I was really writing prose poems,” he said, and let out a little laugh like Elmer Fudd, and everyone cracked up. The two poets laureate had two things in common: endearingly funny laughs and poems that read more or less as stories.
Levine did most of the talking in the Q&A, mentioning at one point that he was “losing [his] mind and [his] sobriety.” Prompted by Duffy’s clarification-that-didn’t-really-clarify of a rumor that she was the first UK poet laureate in its history to actually take the Crown up on its offer of a “butt of sack,” which apparently means 600 bottles of sherry, Levine launched into an actually pretty detailed description of a brand of wine for which he has personally picked the blend of grapes. He told the audience that the wine would be debuting later this year. He must have been kidding, though—when asked to describe the taste, he said it’d be “picaresque.” And later, when asked what a poet laureate did, Levine responded: “Take the money and run.”
Correction: Apparently Philip Levine really is vinting a wine, and it will both taste and be called Picaresque.Thanks to Poetry Editor Don Share for pointing out the error on our Facebook Page.