October 21, 2016

The 5th Annual Poetry Reading and Art Show: A Recap

It’s the top of the dusky hours on a Friday, and you find yourself timidly entering into an art gallery on an unfamiliar college campus for a poetry reading.

Free wine! Free hors d’oeuvres! they told you—and somehow you’ve never turned down an offer for gratuitous grub.

Poetry readings, you gather from your narrow exposure to the staged events on TV sitcoms, are stiff and brooding. You imagined small crowds of people dressed in all black, glasses of blood red wine, and deep, muffled laughs at pretentious jokes that would fly right over your head.

But the energy of this room is different from those fictional scenes. Sure, there’s the same amount of black clothing, and the same bottles of Merlot, but the laughs are more hearty and when the poetry starts, it expands the room instead of shrinking it. And the cheese? Well, that deserves a blog post of its own.

Two weeks ago, on Friday, October 7, Claremont citizens and visitors alike reunited for the 5th Annual Poetry Reading and Art Show. The annual event combines three of Claremont Graduate University’s proudest affiliations: the Kingsley and Kate Tufts Poetry Awards, Foothill: a journal of poetry, and art from the Peggy Phelps and East Galleries.

The cause for the event is more than a simple desire to listen to poetry over wine and cheese (though I, for one, think that is a sufficient cause for any event). In fact, the cause for the event involves three parts:

Laryssa Galvez
Foothill Associate Editor Laryssa Galvez, browing the latest issue of Foothill. Photo credit: Brian McCabe

1 – It’s the culminating event at the end of the week-in-residence for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award winner. Ross Gay, winner of the 2016 award, spent the week leading up to the event giving readings at the Claremont Library and CGU’s downtown campus; conducting workshops at Pitzer College and Pomona’s dA Center for the Arts; and greeting all the enthusiastic readers of his work (and they weren’t few).

2 – It’s the annual release of Foothill: a journal of poetry’s new volume. This year, the eighth volume features work from thirteen poets at graduate schools all over the country, art from CGU student Adrienne DeVine, and an interview with poet and previous Kingsley Tufts Poetry winner (2012), Timothy Donnelly. For the event, Foothill invited one of its previously published poets, Nikia Chaney, to read along with Ross Gay.

Art show
Browsing the art. Photo Credit: Brian McCabe

3 – Last, but definitely not least, it’s an art opening. Although the gallery typically features art from CGU’s studio art students, this year’s art came from overseas. It was the final night of The Pacific Lecture and Exhibition Series show, a collaborative exchange between CGU’s Art program and the 53 Museum in Guangzhou, China. The artists included Feng Gen, He Jiancheng, and Che Jian-Quan.

The event began with all the familiar energy of the past years’ events. The tables outside the gallery were busy with sales of books from Ross Gay, Nikia Chaney, and Foothill’s new volume. Foothill editors were behind the bar pouring drinks, and in front of the bar grabbing drinks for both their old and new friends. After most had the chance to wander around the gallery—the art deserved much more than five minutes, and those who got there early were able to see why—the chairs filled up quickly, and the walls were soon lined with clusters of people anxious to hear the acclaimed readers.

Nikia Chaney, who was published in Foothill in 2012 (volume 2, number 2), began her reading with a poem that originally appeared in that volume. “Chocolate jesus,” Chaney read emphatically, “is a symbol no a symphony a sweet standing story he / wants you he needs you to get out on that street and work and work / and work.” As she formed the words purposefully in her mouth, she filled the audience with a precise picture of her “bittersweet” Jesus.

Nikia Chaney
Nikia Chaney reads from a previous issue of Foothill. Photo credit: Brian McCabe

When Ross Gay stood to read, he began by delivering two works he had written during his week in Claremont. He calls these works—which are not quite poems, but are definitely more ethereal than your mother’s prose—delights. These delights, as playful yet sincere as Gay’s poetry, drew appreciation and laughter from the crowd as he pointed to Claremont landmarks uncertainly. “On…Foothill?” he paused before continuing to describe the pink-bootie-wearing chihuahua that caught his attention on the good ol’ Route 66 (Foothill Boulevard’s more iconic name).

He finished his reading in the way most hoped he would: with a reading of the title poem of his last book, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. He apologized for those who had heard him read it many times before (both in that week and at other times), but then he proceeded to give a reading so distinct and passionate (as he is oft to do) that most felt they were hearing something new. “I want so badly to rub the sponge of gratitude / over every last thing,” Gay told us, “including you, which, yes, awkward, / the suds in your ear and armpit, the little sparkling gems / slipping into your eye”—and after getting to know him that week, we believed him.

Ross and Nikia
Poets Ross Gay and Nikia Chaney settle back into the crowd, post-reading. Photo credit: Brian McCabe

When the reading had finished, most people lingered around, topping off their wines and expressing ‘unabashed gratitude’, if you will, for the experience of listening to good poetry read by good poets. There’s a reason that your friend—who had a small, and while not totally incorrect, narrow perception of poetry readings—said that poetry was not what he thought it was after the event was over. Insert all the cliché phrases of hearts full and tears wiped because cliché as it is, that’s what happened.

—Ashley Call