Kaminsky Beats Beckman
On Thursday, April 12, at the Tractor Tavern, Nextbook hosted a reading by poets Ilya Kaminsky and Joshua Beckman, two poets I'd heard a lot about but never heard. One of them was fantastic. One of them wasn't.
Beckman has a reputation as one of the leading poets in Seattle, and he is the editor of Wave Books, which publishes beautiful books, but as a poet, the guy has some serious Frank O'Hara damage, a good helping of clichéd poet-gloom, and awful instincts. The person I was with warned me that he had a horrible phrase in one of his poems, but she couldn't remember what it was. In his reading (poems about traffic and girlfriends and urban ennui) it never came up, but then, during the Q&A, someone mentioned it. The phrase: "the karate chop of love." Oh man.
But Kaminsky was fantastic. He was raised in Russia and moved to the United States in 1993, after his family was granted asylum. Now he lives in California. He read from his collection Dancing in Odessa and, because Kaminsky is deaf, the audience got copies of the book to follow along with while he, well, made noises at the microphone, sort of like singing. The first poem in the book, "Author's Prayer," is about speaking for the dead, which Kaminsky writes is like being "a blind man/who runs through rooms without/touching the furniture." His writing about Odessa ("a city that belongs to no nation") has the grist and urgency of reporting, full of doctors and vegetables and predatory public prosecutors and regular old people to whom awful things have happened: "women with huge breasts, old men naive and childlike,/all our words, heaps of burning feathers/that rise and rise with each retelling." He was so good I started to cry.
Kurt Vonnegut Is Still Dead
But Slaughterhouse-Five is alive and well and there's a good chance it's better than you remember. Among the things I'd forgotten: the German in golden boots, frozen coats being separated with ice picks, boiled schoolgirls, Billy Pilgrim thinking he's turning to steam, the portable Christian altar and organ made by a vacuum-cleaner company, the girl who's pretty except for her "legs like an Edwardian grand piano," and the single most important thing about the aliens, which is that they see all of time at once. When they see a corpse, they think "that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments."
Here's the moment in which Vonnegut continues to live for me: After a reading I traveled all the way to Spokane to see, he signed books for hours and hours in an underground room, surrounded by fans, and, as he was leaving, turned around and flipped everyone off.