Dana Gioia once asked, “Can Poetry Matter?” If you were at the LA Time Festival of Books on the UCLA campus at the end of April (National Poetry Month, don’t you know) you would sing a resounding yes. Panels with poets like bell hooks, Galway Kinnell, Thomas Lux (well, he actually didn’t get there until his reading due to plane complications), and Carolyn Kiser were full and the poetry tent, by the second day of readings, was close to reaching capacity (about 200 seats and plenty of lawn).
I always like the poetry tent, with its location behind Powell Library, because it is far from the madding crowd (as Thomas Gray once said). You can hop over to Kirkwood Coffee House, with its medieval stained-glass windows, and grab a coffee or muffin or chilled frappe something-or-other, and you can get to the bathrooms nearby unmolested by the huge crowd you encounter in the main square. You can also sit quietly or even lie in the grass while mere feet away Pulitzer Prize-winning poets serenade you with their words. I love LA.
The readers at the tent were a roll-call of royalty and up-and-coming royalty. The first day saw David St. John, Diane de Prima and Mark Doty, to name a very few (each poet was given 30 minutes). Sunday was no different, with Carol Muske-Dukes, Phillip Levine and Charles Webb joining another impressive roster of poets. After each reading, the poets could be found at a table in an adjacent tent set up by Small World Books, where you could get your books signed and chat for a couple of minutes after waiting in line (and there was always a line).
The panels were also amazing. Richard Howard, on a panel with Chinese dissident poet Bei Ling and Dana Gioia, was asked about the idea of writing poetry without having read the works of other poets (and I don’t mean Jack Kerouac). Howard huffed a bit (as a good academic should) and said,”I’m not interested in poems that emerge from what some might call ‘originality’. Good poems come from what came before. I am more of a reader than a writer.” To which I say a hearty, “go girlfriend!”