Making words sing, feeling them hit is the goal of every writer. “I believe poetry begins right at the point where the limits of prose have been exhausted. Right on that line, poetry pops up and appears,” stated Billy Collins, former United States Poet Laureate (2001to 2003), New York State Poet Laureate (2004 to 2006) and featured reader at Valencia Community College’s Kerouac Celebration program on Feb 23, 2008.
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s seminal novelization of his cross-country misadventures, the program featured eight student readers, three faculty and three local authors in addition to Mr. Collins, all reading original works, showing us the extent of Kerouac’s influence on modern poetry and prose alike.
Novelist, poet, artist, Jack Kerouac (1922 to 1969), born in the mill town of Lowell, Mass., is the quintessential symbol of the 60’s “Beat Generation.” Berets, snapping fingers, bongo music in dark smoke-filled nightclubs have become cultural reference points for poets and wanna-be poets the world over. Whenever a comedian waves his arms and intones, “The sun, the moon, the stars,” and closes his eyes soulfully, he is picking up on the worst of that time period. The Kerouac Celebration was designed to show us the best of that reverberation.
For those of you who missed today's program, the next event honoring Kerouac’s life will be a free jazz concert performed by the David Amram Quartet, on Friday, March 28, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Crane’s Roost Park, Altamonte Springs. The David Amram Quartet recorded the soundtrack to “Pull My Daisy” with Kerouac narrating.
Kerouac lived in the College Park neighborhood of Orlando, 1957 to 1959, and wrote The Dharma Bums while there. The Kerouac Project (http://www.kerouacproject.org/) selects four writers per year to be an “artist in residence” at Kerouac House on Clouser Avenue, Orlando. For eleven weeks, the writer gets to live and write in a small cracker house on a lovely tree-lined block. Some of the writers co-teach at Valencia Community College, and all host an evening of poetry reading at the end of their tenure.
The star voice of the festival, Billy Collins (http://www.poemhunter.com/billy-collins ) is an accessible writer, using common vocabulary to convey seemingly simple ideas, but always with an insightful twist. He discussed literature, poetry and the creative process in between poems. The first work Collins read was “Hippos on Holiday,” speculating on whether hippos go on holiday and if so, why and where? He followed with “Bathtub Family,” a discourse on bathtub toys and their tendency to take over the bath, bathroom and life. As the laughter dies, Collins said, “When I finish a poem, a good poem … sometimes I feel as if the attendants will be coming in at any moment to take me, gently, for a walk around the grounds. Especially when I am in Newport, Rhode Island where things are… [Collins looks up at the ceiling for a few seconds] what they are.” He smiles at the audience’s rapt appreciation of the madness of the creative process. To quote E.L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”
Collins followed with “Flock,” a poem about sheep and not how many sheep can dance on the head of a pin, but how many will be skinned for each edition of the Guttenberg Bible. “Adage” takes apart homilies and sayings, then puts them back together in a work of genius, just as he takes apart and remakes the rules of poetry.
Discussing Kerouac’s release of On the Road when Collins was 16, “Growing up in New York, I never knew just how big America is, how it has so much space. Kerouac’s honesty and sincerity keep the book flowing, greatly influenced me. He was looking for something, as we all are…People tend to romanticize that…it was mostly coffee. Just a lot of pots of coffee.”
At the end of the four hours of reading and listening to poetry and prose, Mr. Collins quipped, “Alright, it’s midnight, let’s go. Or at least it feels like midnight.” No, that is not an implication that the afternoon was tedious or boring, but rather that listening to excellent poetry and prose can be exhausting. Both the reader and the listener experience catharsis, an emotional drain during the process. “There is a contract between the reader and the writer. [I feel that] the writer is someone who talks to me, has something to say to me. And that is how I treat my readers,” Collins told the audience at one point during his hour on stage, as they leaned forward in their seats, ears turned to catch every word.
The event opened with student writers, current and recent Valencia attendees. Chadwick Sterling, Rochelle Davis, Emily Beardsley and Carmelo Spatazza read recent works on politics, hurricanes, love, music and crickets. Alex Copeland picked a few poems which were very concise and sharp, inspired by his father, as opposed to Amanda Leezer, who read a rambling discourse on family relationships, the style an effective parallel to the content. Natalie Rose Frith’s work shows the continuing influence of Hemingway but she adds a lyric quality all her own. Her writing on Florida life and travel are always thought provoking. Jared Christopher Silvia displayed his unique sense of humor and twisted outlook on life in the seemingly clueless ramblings of his character, Peter Gondewski, an everyman standing under a luckless cloud. A few years from now, while browsing the shelves at your local bookshop, remember you saw their names here first.
Faculty readers John Hughes, Ilyse Kusnetz and James Thomas were next on stage. Prof. Hughes, author of The Novels and Short Stories of Frederick Barthelme, related a short story from the viewpoint of a twelve year old boy whose parents recently separated. Prof. Thomas’, who received the first place award in the Best Emerging Writer category from the Florida Literary Arts Alliance in 1999, read a piece which takes place at a funeral and includes all the long-lost relatives you wish would stay lost. Prof. Kusnetz’s selected readings included “Frog in a Frying Pan,” “Ode to Pluto” and “Green Oranges.”
They were followed by Darlyn Finch, former Kerouac Artist in Residence and author of Red Wax Rose and Three Houses. Ms. Finch will be reading at the Orlando Museum of Art’s 1st Thursday on March 6th. She also maintains Sunscribbles, a website for the central Florida literary scene (http://www.sunscribbles.com/ ). Terry Godbrey, winner of the 2006 Slipstream award for her chapbook, Behind Every Door and Susan Lilley, winner of the Yellow Jacket Press Chapbook for Night Windows, also read. Slipstream (http://www.slipstreampress.org/) and Yellow Jacket Press (http://yellowjacketpress.org/ ), at the Blake School of Arts in Tampa, are publishers of new and established poets and writers.
The David Amram Quartet (http://davidamram.com/) will be performing on Friday, March 28, from 7 to 9 pm at Crane’s Roost Park in Altamonte Springs (http://www.uptownaltamonte.com/) (I4 east to Exit 92, route 436). There is no charge for this concert; however donations are graciously accepted by the Kerouac Project, a not-for-profit charitable organization (The Kerouac Project, PO Box 547477, Orlando, Fl, 32854-7477 or http://www.kerouacproject.org/ ). For more information on events at Valencia Community College, call 407-299-5000 or visit them on the web at http://valenciacc.edu/.