After a month-long layoff, the Poets of Ohio reading series resumed, hosting Cleveland-native Dave Lucas. Lucas read and discussed poems from his debut-collection Weather (University of Georgia Press, 2011) to a large, hometown crowd last night at Case Western Reserve University. Below is an excerpt of the introduction I gave for the event:
The history of poetry in and of Cleveland is fraught with complex tensions between poet and city. In a letter dated 15 June 1922, Hart Crane, arguably Cleveland’s most famous poet, wrote to his friend Wilbur Underwood that “Life is awful in Cleveland.” Decades later, d.a. levy, another local yet nationally-known poet, wrote:
cleveland, i gave you
the poems that no one ever
wrote about you
and you gave me
And in the recently published anthology of his writing, the poet Russell Atkins focuses his creative imagination on the “miserabled gone” of Cleveland and its images of the “sick / against [the] broken.”
While, no doubt, it’s easy to promote a narrative of Cleveland within poetry and the arts that is filtered through such a negative lens; there also exists an alternate vision that forwards a place-based poetics which champions the city in all its oxidized glory.
Dave Lucas’ first book, Weather, I think, traffics primarily in this latter category. While the speakers of his poems do acknowledge the “dying arts” (1) and the “muddy unmarked grave[s]” (14) of industrialism, they also articulate a relentless determination by the city and its inhabitants to persevere. For instance, in the poem “River on Fire,” Lucas meditates upon the burning of the Cuyahoga River, concluding with the realization that the “river burned and was not consumed” (15). Yes, it was set aflame several times—13 times, to be exact, from 1868 to 1969—but the river remains. And now, due to recent environmental efforts, the Cuyahoga is cleaner than it has ever been during the past 150 years.
In an interview I conducted with Lucas a little over a year ago, he mentioned that he hoped the poems of Weather would work through the tired narratives of “apocalypse and exodus” that so often dictate conversations about Cleveland in order to “transform” our collective imagination of and about the city. Rather than an urban landscape of decay, the poet wants “both [his] art and [his] city to be…in the present tense”: alive, vibrant, and worthy of praise.
To this extent, then, the poems of Weather mirror rather closely the poet Richard Hugo’s concept of the “triggering town,” wherein the “initiating subject”—in this case, Cleveland—activates the “imagination” in order to yolk intellectual curiosity, emotional resonance, and aesthetic beauty at the site of the poem.
Yes, the poem becomes a place both to embody and honor another place; and this doubling of place within Weather serves as a poetic reminder that Cleveland is not dead. Instead, the city is, indeed, “present” and thrives in our presence; perhaps under a layer of rust, for sure, but it lives and flourishes, exuding a passionate intensity that belies the negative critiques outsiders so often foist upon our city.
Here’s a video of Lucas reading his poem “Midst of a Burning Fiery Furnace” from the event:
This Thursday, 20 March, the poet Daniel Tiffany will deliver a hybrid reading-lecture titled “Is Kitsch Still a Dirty Word?”; and on Thursday, 27 March, the poet Tyrone Williams will read and discuss his poetry. Both events will be held on Case Western Reserve University’s campus.