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Festival of Books: The nature of poetry with Nick Flynn, Matthew Zapruder and David St. John

May 1, 2011 |  3:49 pm

Nickflynn With the written word continuing its traditional perception in modern culture as a challenged art form at best and a shortsighted career move at worst, there was perhaps no more happily self-effacing group of writers at USC than those on the Sunday afternoon panel "The Poet's Journey: Personal Reflection and Public Revelation."

In a thoughtful and often inspiring conversation, the five poets talked not only about where the personal becomes poetic in their process, but also made a persuasive argument for poetry as one of the most vital forms of expression.

Responding to whether writing acts as a form of personal catharsis, poet and memoirist Nick Flynn said, "As far as I understood catharsis, it was never promised to those who wrote poetry or made art." He explained that the catharsis lies with the reader, and those who look to writing poetry as therapy should probably just get a therapist.

Flynn went on to recite "Dutch Painters" by Polish writer Adam Zagajewski as an example of where the personal and political could meet in poetry, something the writer explored both in his new collection, "The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands," and last year's memoir, "The Ticking Is the Bomb." After his reading, Flynn said with an admiring smile: "As I'm reading this, I don't understand this poem at all. That's what makes it a good poem, it can't be reduced into that one thesis."

While such an admission should be a relief to anyone who has struggled in "getting" poetry, it also underscores the medium's appeal.

Referring to the open-ended nature in interpreting poetry, USC instructor David St. John said, "Poems themselves are experiences, they're an encounter with a human voice." A self-described literalist, San Francisco-based poet Matthew Zapruder said that he had a hard time imagining anyone reading his work as he began his writing career, adding he now keeps the reader constantly in mind as he hopes to "write the poems we all need."

After St. John wryly introduced the Q&A section by inviting anyone to step forward "to ask questions, make extreme accusations, offer jobs" (there's that self-effacement), a young man in the audience asked about how each writer came to find the rhythms in his or her verse. "Poetry disrupts accepted patterns of language," Flynn said, adding that it "fights the deadening of language in mass culture." 

If the Festival of Books ever needed a mission statement, that might work nicely.

-- Chris Barton

Photo: Memoirist and poet Nick Flynn. Credit: Carolyn Cole /Los Angeles Times