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Offering a fresh way of helping you keep up with art and entertainment happenings around the Capital District.

Monday, June 28, 2010

poetry can be cool

On Monday night I attended what for me might be the coolest night of the summer. I went to Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs to attend the opening night of the New York State Summer Writers Institute.

And quite a unique night it was. Poet Robert Pinsky (who was a former Poet-Laureate of the US from 1997-2000) read several of his poems accompanied by a jazz combo consisting of tenor saxophonist Pat La Barbera and bassist Todd Coolman.

It was music, drama and a poetry reading all rolled into one fascinating evening.

This is not a new concept for Pinsky who at readings around the country sometimes uses musicians to elaborate on the jazz rhythms that are already in his writing.

It's an idea that works. This was no dry poetry reading. It was absorbing and even exciting as the words found an an extra beat thanks to the help of the musicians who's work seemed completely improvised. They had sheets on the music stand but it seemed to me it was a copy of the poem being read - which offered them inspiration not direct guidance.

It was an eloquent evening that was never stuffy. Dressed in slacks and a white tee shirt, Pinsky looked like Dr. Oz's older brother. He was filled with energy and totally into finding the mood set by the musicians. Instead of being the creator of these beautiful words, he seemed willing to act as accompanist to the musicians.

Indeed, reading the final poem he announced that he would read the poem as if it were a traditional "straight ahead" poetry reading. He then did it accompanied by the musicians and the poem on a new life and energy. It was a great lesson in the nuances that exist in any work of literature.

It was a standing room only crowd in the Davis Auditorium at Palamountain Hall with most of the audience college age. Someone told me a large group was at Skidmore to take part in the Jazz Institute summer program. If that's true, it should have been a superior learning experience for the students as they got to see how words are not static things and come alive when the human voice adds intonation to the words and music adds even more reflective emotion to the creation.

It was a memorable experience that for me included a touch of nostalgia. It more than a little reminded me of life in Greenwich Village during the 1960s. It was the era of the Beat poets and every young writer wanted to be Alan Ginsburg or Jack Kerouac. I lived in NY at that time and frequented "the Village." There you could listen to poetry in a coffee house like the Cafe Wha(some good,a lot terrible) and later walk a few blocks to someplace like the Village Vanguard to hear some cool jazz.

No one thought of it as being literate. It was just a good time. Last night made me realize that it was pretty cool way to grow up. There's a tendency to feel sorry for kids today who are reduced to writing incoherent text messages and thinking spoken-word music like rap is poetry. I could, but I won't. Instead, I'll just be happy that so many young people attended last night.

I don't know if the other events at the Writers Institute will be this special but they are certainly worth a try. Mondays to Friday until July 23 there will be poets and novelists offering readings of their work. It's free and well worth your time.

Last night reminded me that poetry can be cool and words are treasures.


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