Filled with Whit and Irony: What Where Series with Carmen Gimenez Smith, John Keene, and Laura Mullen, Sept. 24, 2013

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by Jennifer van Alstyne

Tuesday, September 24th was a great night for the What Where Series at Naropa University. We were blessed with three amazing poets: Carmen Gimenez Smith, John Keene, and Laura Mullen. The Jack Kerouac School’s event was attended by grad students, professors, Naropa undergrads, and members of the surrounding community.

As people entered, they were presented with the opportunity to sit either on meditation cushions or in chairs facing the podium and a very large projection screen. Andrea Rexilius introduced the reading. Joseph Navaro, a first year MFA candidate, introduced Carmen Gimenez Smith with a Wallace Stevens quote: “Everything is complicated; if that were not so, life and poetry and everything else would be a bore.” Her reading was complicated and beautiful, allowing soundwork and confessionalism to interplay with an oddly refreshing emotional nostalgia. She read poems from her 2011 book, The City She Was, and several from her forthcoming book. The audience was entranced by poems like “Radicalization,” which focuses on the contradictory needs for both agitation and connection, and “Can We Talk Here,” an homage to Smith’s favorite feminist figures (such as Joan Rivers).

John Keene, a professor in the MFA program at Rutgers-Camden, read from his book Seismosis. It was refreshing to have a poet who very consciously used humor–something rather lacking from contemporary poetry. Even the serious poems, such as “Occupy,” about the Occupy movement in Chicago, were filled with whit and irony: “No one wants to die a banker, but a banker.” He got the entire room laughing–and drawing–with his ars poetica, “How to Draw a Bunny,” named after a Ray Johnson documentary.

The most powerful reading might not be considered a reading at all. Laura Mullen’s performance from her 2012 book Freedom: A Little Book of Mechanical Brides was both radical and moving, a mixture of war and wedding complete with found wedding dress and found poems. The audience was most impacted by the duet reading of her list poem of war code names with MFA student Amy Lakau. Her ending piece was a video which included urination, Valentine’s Day, chocolates, and the ironic advice of an online-dating guru. Overall, the 2nd of the 2013 What Where Series was highly successful.


Jennifer van Alstyne is an MFA candidate and fellow at the Jack Kerouac School. She is the poetry editor of Bombay Gin. Her work has appeared in the Eunoia Review, MLM, Poetry Quarterly, The Monmouth Review, The Foundling Review, and Paper Nautilus. She is currently working on a collection about Hurricane Sandy and Asbury Park, NJ.