Monday, May 4, 2009. At 5 PM, I go to a poetry reading. Ann Burnham, a high spirited Irish woman whom I’ve known for many years, maybe 15 or more, called about a month ago and asked me if I’d participate in a poetry reading as a fund-raising event for Autumn House Press, a small but nationally known non-profit publishing company here in Pittsburgh. “We want you to read a poem that means something personally to you, and we’ll have a group of readers, and we want no one to read longer than three minutes. And it has to be something by another poet, not something you yourself have written.” Sounds easy enough. An odd request, but sure, why not?
I often like to paraphrase Vonnegut and a Bokononist tenet from Cat’s Cradle: Unusual invitations are dancing lessons from God.
The event is at the beautifully restored visitors center at Schenley Park across from the Phipp’s Conservatory, not far from my office.
Even before I hang up on the invitation call, I mention to Ann that I might read Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and another short poem by James Dickey because I remember when Mr. Dickey read them together in a class I took with him back in the 1980s. (Yes, I took two semesters of poetry writing with James Dickey at the University of South Carolina as a grad student with no plans for a degree. He lived in Columbia, South Carolina, and so did I, and it just seemed wise to take advantage of the poet’s presence. I hadn’t read much of his poetry, but I’d loved his novel Deliverance, and I thought he was a great teacher: energetic, opinionated, often loud, sometimes brooding, always inspiring.)
I think I’m 5 or 10 minutes late, but it’s OK. The audience is just starting to gather in the beautiful little brick house. There are smiling young women with trays of hors d’oeuvres. There are old and new friends to talk to.
There are 5 readers: a poet named Toi Derricotte who teaches at Pitt, Sally Wiggin who’s a TV news anchor at Channel 4, Marty McGuinn who used to be chairman and CEO of Mellon Financial, Franco Harris who’s the legendary Steeler who made that Immaculate Reception, and me.
The people who’d come to listen and help Autumn House were an impressive and attentive crowd. I don’t think the SEEN people (from the PG) or the FANFARE folks (from the Trib) were there , but if you read those weekly party reports and look at the photos regularly, you’d probably recognize a lot of the people at this event.
Ann Burham proves to be a delightful hostess, MC, and appreciative commentator. She gets the readers rolling.
It was remarkably fast, fun and the poetry was a good mix, a salad of sounds and attitudes. Toi kicked off the evening by singing a Billy Holiday song a capella (a cool and brave surprise), Marty read two short poems by William Butler Yeats (Marty’s second reading was my favorite of the entire event), then Franco read a Robert E. Hayden poem titled “Those Winter Sundays,” I did my two (the Dylan Thomas and the James Dickey), and Sally capped the program with The Tyger by William Blake. It seemed a good amount of words, words, words. Not too much, not too little.
Rick St. John (Executive Director) and Michael Simms (founder) from the Autumn House Press say a few words about what they’re trying to do and why they need help, especially financial help.
Then there was schmoozing, bright chatter, people snapping pictures on phones, and ah, another round of appetizers. I’d do it again in a minute. I’d go to hear five other readers too.
I took many of these pictures. And I also got several from J.J. Bosley (who happens to be the treasurer for Autumn House too), but during the reading, when I went to perform my poems, Franco volunteered to take a photo or two of me with my camera. The power and charm of celebrity are weird forces, but Franco taking my picture? That would impress my dad.