A postmodern city

‘Words’ celebrates Buffalo’s impact on 20th century art

By EMMA JANICKI
On April 15, 2014

As the nine-piece group went silent for a moment, uncertain whether the performance of Steve McCaffery's poem "Carnival" had finished, a chuckle rose through the audience and was echoed by the performers on stage. They bowed and the audience clapped hard through their smiles and light laughter.

This past weekend, running from Thursday to Sunday, was the first-ever Words festival at Burchfield Penney Art Center. The festival celebrated the contributions Buffalo authors, poets, journalists and artists have made to 20th century art.

Friday night, UB associate English professor Judith Goldman gave a poetry reading as part of the Poets and Writers Series held at the Center. The series is in its 35th year, commemorated by the release of the anthology Mortals and Immortals - including poets like Robert Creeley, Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein and Raymond Federmen, all founders of the Poetics Program at UB.

Dr. Steve McCaffery, the David Gray Chair of Poetry and Letters in the English department, performed sound poetry with local group Wooden Cities. Sound poetry emphasizes the sounds that make up languages by rejecting the use of sentences and words in favor of phonetic sounds. McCaffery's physical command and dexterity in performing is striking, even as the sounds can sound ridiculous.

Meanwhile, two renowned literary figures came head-to-head to discuss Buffalo's history as a major jazz city in the '30s and '40s and the devastating loss of that culture. Jeff Simon, the arts editor of The Buffalo News and a UB alumnus, sat down in the Peter and Elizabeth C. Auditorium of the Center with Ishmael Reed - essayist, poet, author, editor, publisher, songwriter, playwright, pianist and jazz trombonist.

Reed attended UB while it was still a private institution and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the university in 1995, according to poemhunter.com.

The Center's director, Dr. Anthony Bannon, gave introductions for the weekend. Bannon is in his second tenure as director. Speaking in his characteristically methodical manner, Bannon spoke of the "elites" and "nobles" sitting in the audience for both Goldman's reading and Reed's discussion.

After Bannon's quick introduction of Goldman, UB English Ph.D. student Joseph Yearous-Algozin gave a more thorough summary of Goldman's critical theories in her poetry, including her belief that media has a life that extends beyond that of its human creators. Yearous-Algozin ended his introduction celebrating the continued existence of humanity: "So we're not dead yet; let's reward ourselves with some poetry."

The selected poem for Goldman's reading notably played on current issues, often eliciting laughter from the audience. In the poem "Austerity Measures," Goldman directly commented on the recent cuts to the humanities in education. She compiled famous lines of poetry but chopped out 20 percent of the lines, leaving phrases like "better to reign in hell than," "and miles to go before" and "though I could not stop for death he stopped." She did this to help "poetry's bottom line."

McCaffery and Wooden Cities performed to an audience that thoroughly enjoyed what often sounded like a busy urban street. Performing selections of McCaffery's poetry, Wooden Cities and McCaffery deregulated what most people would consider to be poetry and music.

With each new poem, the arrangement of performers onstage changed, creating new dynamics between the performers and within the sound of the ensemble. In "Dilemma of the Meno," oboist Megan Kyle, saxophonist Brendan Fitzgerald, pianist Michael McNeill, guitarist Zane Merritt, violinist Evan Courtin and cellist T.J. Borden followed a score that, rather than laying out each note to be played, had words like "worm" and "leopard," meaning different musical styles or composers to play (Mozart and Coltrane, for example).

Musicians played their scores in random order, recalling Socrates' statement in Plato's Meno, "Unity can only announce itself in fragments." Despite the intensely disparate musical notes and blowing air through their instruments, the musicians created a strange and deregulating but simultaneously liberating unity.

Described by Bannon as a 'public intellectual,' Simon immediately claimed he did a terrible job covering the famous Woodstock music festival of 1969 as he sat in one of the modernly curved white chairs onstage. For the next hour, Simon and Reed discussed the history of the Buffalo jazz scene in the 1930s and '40s, moving to a larger discussion of racism in America.

Reed recalled his childhood in Buffalo, saying he "lived in a black city within a city," never having seen the Butler Mansion on Delaware Avenue until his adulthood. He said learning about Buffalo has been a lifelong process.

Although jazz seemed to disappear from Buffalo and economic depression ripped through the city, Reed referred to Buffalo today as "a comatose patient that gets up and runs around," attempting to fix problems but maybe not going about it the best way.

During the question-and-answer session, local poet Verneice Turner praised Reed's belief in "continentalizing" our identities. 

"There's a psychological shift when we recognize we're from continents," Turner said.

Rather than having 'Americans' and then African-Americans or Asian-Americans, Turner and Reed believe all Americans should recognize their immigrant histories.

The first-ever Words event was a look into the work being done by locally based or locally inspired authors, artists, journalists and poets.

 

email: features@ubspectrum.com


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