Amherst Cinema was center stage for three recognized poets last Thursday night. The event was presented by the University of Massachusetts Juniper Initiative for Arts and Action, the UMass Fine Arts Center and the Going Public Contemporary Literature series. The cinema was full of over 150 poetry enthusiasts, made up of students, graduate students and area locals, to hear the work of James Haug, Ellen Doré Watson and James Tate.
“When you hold events in Amherst Cinema, academics feel welcome, locals feel welcome, it’s a great meeting place, it makes events more accessible to more people,” said Executive Director of Amherst Cinema, Carol M. Johnson.
First to read was James Haug, who jokingly carried his own bottle of water, adjusting the microphone and saying, “I brought my own,” initiating the laughter that would later ensue. Haug, who is a resident of Northampton, is the author of three collections of poems; his most recent is titled, “Legends of the Recent Past.” He is the winner of the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize, and has been published in the Gettysburg Review.
Haug was introduced by Ben Kopel, who said, “James is a character, and his poems are full of characters.” Haug’s poems are short, and reminiscent of concise memories, small-town talk and nostalgia of a simple life. His words recreate the image and articulate prose in effective lines with intertwined comedy such as, “boarded a bus to a place known to many as Albany.”
Poems read last week included “Rootbeer,” “Legend of the Recent Past,” “Gardner Exchange” and “How it Came to be Connecticut,” which Haug joked about, hinting that it wasn’t a history lesson. Between pieces, the poet would look up to make a charming or funny comment before looking back down at his work and say, “Honestly, I knew I’d be fumbling through the pages.”
The poem “Nostalgia for the Finite” alluded to mundane human feelings in a way which is both tangible and unthinkable. Haug wrote, “there is a song I’m dying to hear, except I forgot how it goes.” Haug concluded his reading with “There’s No Now,” a piece reflective on a car ride down the Jersey Pike.
Second on stage was Ellen Doré Watson, director of the Poetry Center at Smith College and a graduate of the MFA program. She is the author of three poetry collections, and serves as an editor of The Massachusetts Review. Her work has appeared in publications such as The New Yorker.
Paralleling Haug’s poems, Watson introduced the audience to carefully crafted prose. Introduced by Deb Gorlin, Watson was described by the statement, “If Meryl Streep was writing poetry, she would be Ellen Watson.” Watson read excerpts from her most recent book, “This Sharpening” and others including, “Broken Railings” and “We Live in Bodies.”
She has been described as reinventing poems, and assumes different personalities, allowing the reader or audience to never become washed in continuing themes. Her poems offer perspectives on life from a variety of character’s viewpoints. Watson’s piece “Yes from No” offered many laughs, and contemplative agreements about a man moving out of one woman’s life and into another’s, as the first women pictures driving her car through the front of the house. Her poem “As We Speak” offered insight such as, “Sound only travels so far, how does it stop?”
Concluding the festival event was James Tate, introduced by Alex Phillips as “One of the most acclaimed poets of our times.”
Rachael Kador, a UMass senior, described Tate’s poems as effective because of the way “the poems make fun of themselves.”
Sharon Alvandai, a fellow senior and English major, said that lines like, “the hail was as big as hail,” “is a jab at poetry itself,” and that she was “impressed with his humor – wry humor.”
The students mentioned that they “occasionally see James Tate” around campus, and appreciate the sense of community he creates, including that he is a very famous poet of our time.
“It is rewarding to go out and see living literature. He is amazing, and witty, and I appreciate someone who is stoically hilarious,” Alvandai said.
Tate’s tone stayed level, no matter the subject of the poem, which effectively made comical pieces, such as “Ice Cream Man,” hilarious. Other poems, such as “Land of the Vapors,” had an effective stoic tone.
Tate read through his selected poems as if he was just a character that lives as a witness, not as the poet who constructed lonely, charming and witty characters. Tate was the 2008 recipient of the Massachusetts Book Award for “The Ghost Soldiers.” He is a professor in the MFA program for poets and writers at UMass.
Chelsea Whitton can be reached at [email protected]