By Kaiya Gordon /// Features Editor
When Portland’s skies aren’t steeped in a gray soup of rain, fog and seasonal depression, the inside of the Frank Manor house shines. On Monday night, when visiting poets Samiya Bashir and Joy Katz did a joint reading in the lobby of the building, bare windows lining the walls gleamed with received sunlight and open doors to the Frank Manor House’s sitting room gave the impression of grandeur, making everything look different than it did last week when the weather forecast read 50 and cloudy.
Even tradition—something that pervades the Frank Manor House—looks different when the sun is shining on it. As Katz and Bashir took turns standing at the front of the room, they were framed by a large picture of Mount Hood; the light, bouncing off of the painted mountain’s peak, framed them in a halo. This light permeated their readings as well. The poets came to the college with their latest books—“Gospel” and “All You Do is Perceive,” respectively—and indulged the audience by sharing not only new work, but also thoughts about the relationship between form, content, and performance, and personal anecdotes. “This is the beginning of a beautiful dialogue,” Bashir said of the reading.
Katz—who has studied at Ohio State, Washington University and Stanford—has authored three books. Her latest, “All You Do is Perceive,” takes on the serious and compelling issue of perspective, but its title comes from a family joke. Katz got the phrase from a Harold Pinter play, but her family members applied it to her career as a writer––“All you do is perceive,” Katz said, “like you don’t get groceries, run errands.” Though jabs at Katz’s profession were in jest, it lead her to serious considerations about writing. “Is this enough work on Earth?” Katz asked the audience on Monday night.
For what it’s worth, Bashir seemed to think that it was. During Katz’s reading, Bashir nodded along, laughing and smiling when Katz’s reading became more performative and humming or frowning slightly when more melancholic. And when Bashir got up to read, the room became jubilant. After a spirited reading of “Climate Change,” which requires audience participation, Bashir shared a newly written “crown sonnet” about John Henry. The crown sonnet—an intricately formed string of fifteen sonnets, in which the last sentence of one sonnet is the first of the next, and the last line of the final sonnet is a repetition of the first line of the first sonnet—is an impressively difficult form, but Bashir has no scruples about writing in this form. The first part of her book, “Gospel,” is written in a form based on a mathematical formula that Bashir herself developed.
Katz, too, unveiled new material at the reading. She revealed that she has been working on a new project about race, but cautioned that many of her usual poetic forms weren’t working. “Some things you just can’t do when writing about race,” Katz said. “If white guilt comes up in a poem,” she continued, “then it sinks the poem and makes the whole thing about whiteness again.” One way that Katz tried to combat that issue was by generating material which, at first glance, doesn’t seem to be about race politics. Katz read a poem comprised of various names given to shades of white paint. It was autobiographical in more than one way: Katz’s interest in race and white privilege was addressed, but so too was her interest in textiles—she may be starting a job naming paint colors soon. “I’m going to try to be very subversive about it,” Katz admitted, and laughed.
Readings at the Frank Manor House always evoke LC’s current poetic tradition, but that tradition was especially clear at the beginning of the reading on Monday when Bashir, Katz, and LC’s own Mary Szybist lounged on couches in front of an audience of students, recent graduates, and community members. Framed by the light of the room, remembering the flowers in LC’s gardens, Samiya Bashir summed up why everyone was there: “I love the deliciousness of language,” she said.
Kaiya Gordon is the features editor of the Pioneer Log. She likes to write stories about pertinent on-campus events, conduct interviews, and talk about food. Kaiya is a contributor for the English Department’s newsletter at Lewis & Clark, and is a recent NUCL participant. Follow her on @aiyakay