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David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of School of the Americas (Black Lawrence Press, 2012). He is contributing editor to The Cortland Review

The Cortland Review at AWP

I was looking forward to the Cortland Review reading, having attended the two previous celebratory readings at AWP, the first of which also found me as a participant. I was looking forward also to seeing my colleagues at the magazine. We are all so widely separated geographically that it seems like AWP is the only time we get to have face time. I talk to editor Ginger Murchison on a fairly regular basis, but I was on a slim-acquaintance basis with the other editors. But Ginger, being aware of our geographically disparate masthead, was admirable in reminding us that the common nature of our literary endeavors transcended the scarcity of our meetings.

Ginger mounted the podium and two hundred people, who could have gone next door to listen to Don DeLillo but didn't, finished the preliminary schmoozing and stir that happens before a much anticipated event, and gave their attention to the stage and the poets. Ginger introduced the editors, most of whom were in attendance, and the program commenced. She also introduced our version of Lorne Michaels, The Cortland Review publisher, indie filmmaker Guy Shahar, who waved from the back of the audience from behind the eyepiece of his video camera.

I was also looking forward to this year's featured poets, the literary equivalent of a full house in poker: Aracelis Girmay, Stephen Dunn, David Kirby, and Dorianne Laux. I didn't know Aracelis, except by reputation. She had been recommended to me by poets whose work I esteem, so I expected she would find herself at home in this class of poets, as she did. I also expected her to be as up-to-date as young poets traditionally are, when writing two and three poems a day is not a memory but a modus operandi. As a matter of fact, she performed a first (for me) of reading her most up-to-the minute work directly from the screen of her laptop, which had been plugged in just offstage so as not to present the possibility of malfunction. Several hundred interested eyes followed her as she dismounted the stage and walked across the back wall to retrieve the computer, then climbed back up the stairs and with the most natural of apologies, read the poem she had written there. She also read from her two celebrated collections, Teeth and Kingdom Animalia, poems of identity and keen political inference, especially as these things find significance in their relation to our bodies.

Stephen Dunn had written a blurb for my most recent collection, and I had reviewed his last book, as well as written an essay on an important but overlooked aspect of his career. He had written me an appreciative note, and we had exchanged emails, but this would be my first chance to meet him and hear him read in person. I hoped he would read two poems especially: the one about the clown out of context ("If a Clown") and the one about literally going to the dogs ("Don't Do That"). I was pleased that in his concise reading, he did indeed include both poems. Dunn is the Harvey Keitel of poets, and you knew, sitting down, that you would hear yourself redescribed correctly, which is to say, at a discount. It was like finding a Dirty Harry response to the anodyne Wordsworth, whose benign "recollections" were corrected to include all that stuff we have learned about from Freud and Havelock Ellis.

David Kirby I had considered an old comrade-in-pens for many years, and I had experienced not a little envy in how he had written his way to a distinguished career by giving rein to his exfoliating whimsy, upon which also supervened the navigational beacons of form—that is itself formalistic. David was our Rochester, and his excursions into pop culture included knowing and warm engagements with Rock and Roll. He had even written the definitive biography of Little Richard that the New York Times suggested had advanced the thesis that anal sex and who-knows-what-all lurked in the flamboyantly gay Richard's lyrics. His ecstatic shrieks over the a.m. airwaves came just in time to give White America a heads-up, before the social roller-coaster of the '60s began ratcheting up the first gradient. These productions had only increased Kirby's bona fides with my generation of poetry buffs. It was only in retrospect that I remembered Kirby had read a single poem, one of his patented "hyper-talks."

Dorianne Laux was a friend of mine from Raleigh, where we have both lived for the last several years. Her closely charted advance from waitress to universally popular and consistently interesting poet. Dorianne likewise worked effects of pop culture into her poems (Superman, Cher, etc.), but for her, these were the tie-backs holding her façade in place. A skinny boy with a guitar from the distant American past was as rich an image to her as a shepherd and his lyre were to ancient Greece. She modeled her growth not on the inaccessible movie stars of the Grace Kelly, Rita Hayworth era but on the trailer-trash goddess Cher, whose shrunken Neanderthal mate, the business-like Sonny, only underscored the poignancy of her rise. Dorianne had to go by way of Bakersfield to arrive in Boston, and that across-the-universe journey, described with vivid, funny, and forgiving care, had made her a beloved and believable star poet. Her pièce de resistance was a recursive Google poem beginning with her hearing mention of a Zulu, Indiana. Googling "Zulu" presented a veritable garden of forking paths, and the journey, expertly and humorously conducted, left the impression that chance and happenstance could have netted a similarly wild, but completely different and possibly antithetical goose chase of a poem, had another poet, say David Kirby, followed the trail of his own keywords.

It was as good a snapshot of the magazine's interests and of a particular view of contemporary poetry, as I have seen recently: diverse, demotic, unafraid, compelling. I wondered what ripples followed from such a snapshot, but my speculations were eclipsed by the exhilaration of the departing audience, whose amiable noise seemed the crowd equivalent of a high-five.


Aracelis Girmay
Kingdom Animalia


Dorianne Laux
Lake Havasu


Stephen Dunn
Giving Birth