Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery: Ana Bozicevic-Bowling, Julia Cohen & Ken Rumble
Theme: Fox Masks
Poetry Out Loud
Reading series brings in some of the nation’s best
by Avishay Artsy
Sometimes it takes free peanuts and pie to get people to listen to contemporary poetry.
When Mathias Svalina and Zachary Schomburg began directing The Clean Part Reading Series in 2005, audiences at Lincoln’s Tugboat Gallery cracked open peanuts and tossed shells on the floor. Raffle tickets were handed out for a pie, which sat in its box atop the lectern until just before the final reading. Then a lucky winner, usually a hapless undergraduate required to attend, would have his or her photo taken with the two beaming organizers.
“We don’t have pies anymore. It’s actually regressed,” Svalina said, laughing. “It used to be a lot cooler, apparently.”
Readings are now held at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery. Featured poets are still taken out for post-reading pizza and beer. The two believe it’s a way to foster kinship between poetry enthusiasts in Lincoln and up-and-coming poets across the country.
The series quickly developed a positive reputation. Despite having no money to reimburse visiting poets, “literally, within two months, people were emailing us to see if they could travel here to read,” Svalina said.
The dozen Clean Part readings have attracted small, intimate crowds. Svalina and Schomburg acknowledge modern poetry’s limited appeal.
“It’s for 50 people. It’s not for the world. And that’s OK,” Svalina said. While poets might sell a handful of books at the readings, he said, “every single copy of that is going to be read more deeply, and better, than any copy of a Michael Crichton book is ever going to be read.”
Svalina and Schomburg are completing doctoral studies in creative writing at UNL, and teach undergraduate classes. The two publish Octopus Magazine, an online journal of poetry reviews and essays. They run the small press Octopus Books.The set of 8 chapbooks from Octopus is, I hear, in very limited supply at this point.
Schomburg, 30, began the online magazine in 2003 with a friend, notable poet Tony Tost. After moving to Lincoln in the fall of 2005, Schomburg recognized Svalina’s name from the magazine’s rejection list, “because it was an interesting name. It was a name that I would have wanted on the page, because it looked good.” He asked Svalina, 32, to become co-editor.
“We had the same ideas about poetry, what poetry could do,” Schomburg explained. The book imprint and reading series soon followed.
This has been a year of firsts for them. Schomburg’s debut collection, The Man Suit, was published in April by Black Ocean Press. The cast of talking animals and dead presidents earned Schomburg an appraisal as “one of the sincerest surrealists around” from Publishers Weekly. Svalina’s first chapbook, Why I am White, was released in August by Kitchen Press. His second publication, Creation Myths, came out this month after winning New Michigan Press’s annual chapbook competition.
Both poets create highly imaginative alternate realities, in which action defies logic; and truth, as we understand it, is turned on its head. In Creation Myths, Svalina toys with the world’s genesis, imagining a pen that drew the world into existence, or a boy cutting the world out of colored paper. Other explanations involve hovercrafts, explosions, paper clips and a mummy.
Mythology figures into Schomburg’s poems, in which Abraham Lincoln shoots himself in the head and William McKinley plays piano while falling from the sky.
“I think that history is a lot more fun than the actual one that just happened,” Schomburg said, “so why not play with that?”
When Svalina writes “In the beginning people had cornfields rather than sex parts,” and when Schomburg writes, “At a Halloween party, a lung went as a haircut, and a haircut went as a lung,” both writers show that the perceived is more important than the actual.
“[William] Blake said, ‘the imagination is real.’ Blake’s right. What we imagine is true,” Svalina said.
In The Man Suit, Schomburg writes, “Let’s bring everything that’s inside, outside.”
Poets share a sometimes-obsessive need to communicate, and by offering poetry enthusiasts a venue for cutting-edge writing, the two hope to translate what Schomburg calls the “indefinable chaos” of the world into something that can be understood.
Yes, No Coast Films is currently pimping poetry like there’s nothing else that matters. And while there are plenty of other things that matter, it’s a fine time to be in such close proximity to such talented and networked contemporary poets. Respek.