Poetry Scene Features Cee Williams and Other Local Poets

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011 at 12:00 AM
Poetry Scene Features Cee Williams and Other Local Poets by Jay Stevens
Contributed photo

What is a poem? And why poetry? Carl Sandburg claimed poetry “is the journal of a sea animal on land, wanting to fly in the air.” “Poems are not,” warned Rainer Maria Rilke, “simply emotions – they are experiences.” The participants and spectators of the Poetry Scene – a weekly poetry reading series held at the Erie Bookstore on Friday evenings at 6:30 – would probably agree to both. But, alongside the impossible striving and experience of poems, Poetry-Scene-goers would add another characteristic to our understanding of poetry: performance.

At least that's what Poetry Scene co-founder—along with Erie Bookstore proprietor, Kathleen Cantrell—Chuck Joy, tells me shortly before the action unfolds this past Friday. “Poetry should be more like sports,” he says, “and sports more like poetry.” No, Joy is not advocating for poetry readings to include body checks or for fullbacks to create Rilke's expressions of “infinite loneliness” on their charge down field; instead, Joy means that poetry is, or should be, entertainment.

Tucked to one side of the store between a row of brick pillars and a stone fireplace, we're seated on green folding chairs arrayed before a simple, waist-high podium where the action will soon take place. Joy, as always before the readings, puts on jazz on the store's sound system. It's McCoy Tyner –  pianist, former member of John Coletrane's band – and the relentless, restless banging of piano and saxophone chords characteristic of bebop fills the air.

Joy is a child psychologist by day, but he's a poet right now. A self-published author with several collections of poetry, he created Poetry Scene eight years ago so he would have a place in Erie to read. He's wearing a dark brown tweed jacket, penny loafers, and his glasses complete the round, owlish look to his face. He grills me relentlessly. Do I know so-and-so? Do I recognize this music? Am I interested in poetry? Have you ever been to a poetry reading before? Before long, the chairs fill up, and still more people filter in. Joy explains that tonight's reading has a featured poet: Cee Williams.

And then it begins. Joy takes to the podium and reads his first poem, “Eager for Spring,” “I'm eager for winter to be over, aren't you?” he reads. He's transformed at the podium, reading with a loud, clear voice, enunciating each syllable carefully. Outside, it is gloomy. It's probably raining, too. “I remember when the land was green/when you could talk to your neighbor every day.

After Joy reads his poems, people come up to the podium one by one to read us their poems. The quality is wildly varying. One extremely nervous young man who wears a tie to celebrate the occasion reads “a prayer and a poem” that's a series of inspirational aphorisms: “Take time to work, it is the price of success,/Take time to think, it is the source of power...” Another man takes the podium to tell us of a “work in progress” with a difficult meter and rhyme sequence. “I've got three pages,” he says, “five columns per page. It goes from high school, and I've got it up to where I've met Julie.” A teenage girl weeps through a rhyming couplet about a father/firefighter lost on 9/11. An older woman (the teen's grandmother?) in a sequin shirt and with a red carnation in her hair reads her ode to the seasons, “Mother Nature's Playground.”

Much better conceived poems follow. My favorites are Geoffrey Peterson's, who reads two. One, “Bed Bugs,” starts with the reported outbreak of the insect at Blasco Library and ends with a malicious gift to a too-critical editor.The second, “Nausicaa,” compares three girl lifeguards on Presque Isle to the Phaeacian princess who finds a shipwrecked Odysseus washed up on the beach of her father's kingdom. “...[O]n the lifeguard's seat, three teenage girls/perched high with towels and wet hair,/each cradling a cell phone, straight out of Homer./Nausicaa and her maids on the Phaeacian shore, Book Six,/talking to gods or boyfriends...

I'm getting a sense that there's a regular crowd here. My first hint came when Donnie – self-appointed mayor of the Poetry Scene readings – shook everyone's hand before things kicked off, saying, “it's nice to see you again.” He says it to me, too, although I've never seen him before. It's almost time for Williams to read, and there's more than 30 people here, standing room only. It's a wild reading; I've never seen anything like it. It's a mad mix of poems and people.

Cee Williams steps up to loud clapping. He's on the short side, shaved head, glasses. Under an oxford, he's wearing a tee-shirt of two boxing gloves clashing in a cartoon star burst, which turns out to be appropriate to Williams' street-corner prophet's rhythm and tone. “Somewhere between Magdalene and Madonna,” he starts, without preamble, “between Jesus Christ and doubting Thomas/that's where we exist/right in the middle of everything we do matters/and nothing we do counts towards anything.” His voice climbs in volume and intensity. “A plane distorted by short sightedness/confluences of images grotesque and sensual.” It's exhortation. It's a shouted warning, a cry of desperation for a greedy, irrational, people ruled by “inbred cavemen,” and squandering their chance at grace. It's funny, raunchy, and appreciated by the crowd, who laugh and interrupt with applause.

My favorite poem is “Schizophrenic.” “I live in a city that seems to have a disproportionate amount of touched people,” he starts, “and maybe I am one of them.

I ask him later to describe his poetry, he returns, “how would you describe my poetry?” What's poetry for? I try. “Entertainment,” he says, and he's gone out the door. If not chatty, at least he gets Poetry Scene.

Having given up on Williams, I corner Peterson. Onstage, he was an almost menacing figure with his blade-like nose, elfin eyes, and mane of swept-back silver, striding pigeon-toed to the podium and reading in a deep, dry voice. But, here, in person, his voice is gentle. He's an Erie native who lived out West – Berkeley, Wyoming – for 40 years before returning to nurse his ailing father. Peterson has several collections of poetry and two novels. 

“This is far ranging,” he says of the reading, the poems, the readers, and audience. “Anytime you come here on a Friday night, for an hour and a half, it's from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again. It's really something.” We nod together agreeing. I tell him my thoughts, the mix of literary and street, ask him if the reading reflects Erie.

“It's like what Cee said in ['Schizophrenic'],” he says, “we seem to have an inordinate percentage of people that have always lived on the fringe. But you can do it in Erie, because it's financially feasible.” He adds, “and because you blend in with the environment.”

Poetry Scene occurs every Friday at 6:30pm at The Erie Bookstore at 137 13th St. in downtown Erie.

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