Jul '02 [Home]

. . Series Reviews

Exoterica's New Annual Poetry/Music Festival
Hits a Home Run in the Bronx (06/08)

By Michael Carman

The first annual WORD/Jay Liveson Memorial Poetry and Music Festival, featuring such diverse luminaries as Billy Collins, Eric Andersen, and Rick Pernod in an African pillbox hat, made a gorgeous debut on Saturday, June 8, on the campus of the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.

The gorgeous part, Rick's hat notwithstanding, derived from the weather gods, who supplied a perfect June day, and from the beauty of the campus. The college is housed in 19th and early 20th Century buildings, an eclectic mix of castles, colonnades, and Victoria front porches set in wooded rolling hills on the banks of the Hudson River. From 11 a.m. to 11 p.m, the campus became the multi-venue setting for dozens of poets, musicians, and those who consider themselves both.

The festival itself was the idea of Rick Pernod, founding director of Exoterica, the twice-monthly poetry café that has been going strong for the last twelve years at the Ethical Culture Society in the Bronx. Rick named the festival for his friend, the late Jay Liveson, a neurophysiologist who came to love poetry by attending readings at Exoterica. Rick defines Exoterica as "suitable to be imparted to the public; belonging to the outer or less initiate circle." His philosophy extends to sharing with the community at large the way the "mutuality that exists between poetry and music" creates a "dance of language."

Rick moved easily from being the friendly guy on the lawn talking about the more sophisticated aspects of poetics to the raving singer in his eponymously named rock-funk band, The House of Pernod. Picture six-foot-six-plus Rick, yellow T-shirt, African pillbox hat, singng above the guitars and drums about love and sex and death. This is not to say Rick's persona or his white-boy-Bronx-howl act was the most important thing of the day, but to suggest that the attitude of inclusion he projected felt infectiously healthful and exciting­­good for poetry, good for music, good for people.

U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, friend of the festival and literary host, performed in a number of venues, a generosity Collins fans appreciated. He introduced visiting Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion in the late morning, co-hosted a workshop-style conversation on humor and poetry in the afternoon, and in the evening gave a relaxed reading of 18 of his poems on the main stage. Collins reads with warmth and connection to his audience, and his listeners responded in kind.

The humor conversation was a good idea. Collins and Hal Sirowitz, the humor poet and author of the books Mother Said, and My Therapist Said, paired up to read bits of poetry, but mostly they talked and answered questions.

Collins told the attentive poets in the room that every poem he writes is "an effort to ride the fine line between humor and seriousness. But every one of my poems is a failure in this regard.…I do that to correct two of my main faults, cynicism and sentimentality." He said that as a young poet he went through a number of phases before he reached this understanding:"brooding romantic genius,""too sensitive to write," and for some of his earlier years, the writer of "impenetrable poems" he says he is still trying to be forgiven for. He talked about the "decorum that people inflict upon themselves" that limits aspects of themselves in their writing, anger being one.

"Sincerity almost killed poetry," Collins said. "With Wordsworth, romanticism traded sex and humor for landscape." It was not a happy exchange. "We're just beginning to leave those barriers now."

Simultaneous performances, and the fact that we arrived a little too late in the morning, made us miss some of the poets we most wanted to hear, such as D. Nurkse, former poet laureate of Brooklyn, an open mike hosted by Jackie Sheeler, and Jim Carroll talking in a conversation with Jimmy Santiago Baca and Pernod on the topic, "Can Poetry Save a Life?"

The evening closed with an intimate performance of mellow songs old and new by legendary guitarist and songwriter Eric Andersen, a personal favorite of ours. We agreed with Andersen's backup bassman Michael Brooks that Andersen is one of the few musicians from the 60's and 70's who just keeps getting better.

The festival was excellently organized and run by friendly volunteers, all under the direction of Exoterica partner Elizabeth Bassford, a blur racing around campus in her black WORD T-shirt and backwards baseball cap.

The only thing missing during the day were more people. Unfortunately, the festival drew fewer than a hundred attendees. We hope this was because of its newness and not because of the entrance fee which, at $35 for the day, might seem like a lot of dollars for a poor poet to pay. But for the amount of entertainment and enrichment the day offered, the ticket price was a bargain.

This will be an event to watch for next year.

Other artists on the bill included Anselm Berrigan, Blind Beggar Poets, Roger Bonair-Agard, Bronx Writers Corps Youth Poetry Slam League All-Star Team, CCNY Poetry Festival High School Contest Winners, Jayne Cortez and The Firespitters, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Bernadette Gorman, Janet Hamill, Richard Hell, Jae Hood, Vicki Hudspith, Boubacar Kone, M. L. Liebler, Stephanie Lynn, The M.D. Poets, Frank Messina, The Nuyorican School, Eve Packer, Serge Pesce, Po'Jazz with Golda Solomon, David Shapiro, Jackie Sheeler, Shahram Shiva, Patricia Smith, Minton Sparks, Sekou Sundiata, Edwin Torres and Barry Wallenstein.

This event is made possible in part through a grant from The Cultural Venture Fund, administered by The New York State Council on the Arts and The Bronx Council on the Arts.

(Michael Carman's poetry appeared in the magazine's Mar '02 issue. She is presently working on an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, not far from Mt. St. Vincent's, in Westchester.)