"All I need is a little resistance to come to terms," writes Lee Ann Brown in "Resistance Play," the opening poem of "Polyverse," her award-winning first collection of poems, recently published by Sun & Moon Press. "Small daily resistances insist on corrosion of conformity," she continues in her wordplay, urging the reader to "Resister/your Self."
Brown, who will read at 2 this afternoon at Hallwalls, sponsored by Just Buffalo, is a literary resister and non-conformist of the first order -- a poet whose work aims to surprise and challenge us. Still in her early 30s, she is increasingly regarded as one of the leading experimentalists and innovators of her literary generation.
A North Carolina native, she completed both her undergraduate and graduate studies -- appropriately enough at Brown University -- before moving to New York City in 1987. There she gained valuable experience coordinating readings and workshops, organizing fund-raising efforts and maintaining archives at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church -- possibly the best-known community-based literary organization in America -- from 1987 to 1991.
In 1989 Brown became the founding editor and publisher of Tender Buttons Press, a now-influential independent press that publishes experimental writing by women and minorities. Among the books Tender Buttons has published are works by Bernadette Mayer, Anne Waldman, Rosemarie Waldrop and Hannah Weiner.
In her previous chapbooks (including "Crush" and "amuseme") and spoken word recordings -- as well as her parallel career as a filmmaker and videomaker -- Brown has established a reputation as a singular artist whose work is accessible, but difficult to categorize as belonging to one particular "camp" or artistic stance. The poems in "Polyverse" -- a much-heralded collection that was selected by Charles Bernstein to receive the New American Poetry Prize in 1996 -- continue to reflect the enormous range of her influences.
Some of the shorter poems in "Polyverse" capture the funky, urban grittiness and mercurial wit that is the signature style of the so-called "New York School" of poets. Most of the more substantial poems, however, feature extensive punning, wordplay and a predilection for randomly generated syntax and conceptual structures ("Gerard for Unction" and "P Rose Dictation" are prime examples) that show affinity with the language-oriented poetries that Bernstein advocates.
Still other poems ("The Thousand-and-One Nights of the Inside-Out Gown") introduce feminist and lesbian themes similar to those in Brown's media work. Occasionally she will even try neo-formalist compositional techniques, including rhyme and metered verse. In "Summery," a romp through the seasons, she writes: "Oh Spring is here and it's only Feb/How it comes to this impatient Reb/She sang invisibly, not this week/Held time enough for us to speak."
Perhaps the finest poems in this collection are those that find Brown mixing sensibilities and drawing from the range of her influences. "Coffee" is an uptempo lyric poem about unfocused desire ("Even as we speak I might be writing/an acrostic with your name./What's the use/in cutting up?") that finds its objectification in the lonely wail of the tragic country idol Patsy Cline: "Sex which was fluent in all tongues on and off the streets/ of Inner Mission./
Free Patsy from the jukebox: Yes/it turned me on, it might turn on me. Violet/air too picaresque to be caught. Voluptuous//Landscape rushing past. Who am I/without her?"
In "Discontinuous Autoharp," Brown adapts her linguistic agility to a distinctly Southern vocabulary and then introduces all manner of internal rhymes and off-rhymes, spun rhythms and enough clever wordplay to make reading the poem aloud approximate a runaway carnival ride. In one stanza Brown writes, "Too tiny for words much less/song where does poetry belong/Everywhere or in this little box?"
Brown is an associate of the Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard College, and has taught writing at the Naropa Institute's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, St. John's University and her alma mater, Brown University. She also has taught filmmaking at the University of Rhode Island.
Joining Brown in this afternoon's readings will be noted poet, scholar and literary critic Susan Howe. Howe, a professor of English at the University at Buffalo, is widely regarded as one of the most influential experimental poets of the postmodern era.