Albany Journal – 4/17/12

It has been a wonderful week for poetry here in the Capital Region, and it kicked off this weekend with two of the great Albany street poets: Don Lev and Don Levy, both of whom spoke at the Robert Burns statue in Washington Park on Saturday night.  The venerable Donald Lev, already a certified master at what he does, read first from his newly published book “A Very Funny Fellow”, and he was, just by the way he looked, read, and conducted himself. the very funny fellow who wrote what could be said as a major achievement in poetry after his string Enid Dame poems – a tribute to his wife who passed away several years ago.  I knew Donald Lev way before he came up to read at the Robert Burns statue, when I hung around a community of poets in Orange County – Don had joined us, and he certainly is a very warm, funny, and friendly man that I think deserves even more attention from poets everywhere.  He is really very funny, as I think he has finally overcome his deep sorrow at his wife’s passing and has introduced a new work that is both funny, alive, and ready to carry on for the next several years.  His book again is “A Very Funny Fellow”, published by NYQ Books.  I can’t say enough what a great achievement this book is, considering the propensity of his loss and all of the liquor he drinks over it.  I was actually thinking of buying the new book from him Saturday night, but instead I bought a less expensive book of his, “Grief” over the loss of Enid Dame.

The second poet of the night was none other than local favorite Don Levy.  Don has always considered himself as a strong and open gay man, and at the reading that side of his personality came out to some degree in his happy-go-lucky posturing that comes with being a talented poet like Don.  But what he read moved us all, as his poems told the story in verse of how carelessly the other middle school kids bullied him when he was younger.  It was a moving tale, because we all knew how brutal school bullying can be, and I myself grew very angry about it, because Donald’s story of being bullied was so honest and brazen that I immediately wanted to defend him, even though we were not on a school bus, and this wasn’t twenty years ago.  In my view of things, Donald Levy is an exceptional talent on the local Albany scene, and sometimes his work is filled with mirth and glee, but on this occasion, his tale was quite serious, and we all settled in for events that took place in his past that we all wanted to defend him against.  It moved us to that extent.  It was good to see both Donalds up on the stage, as both of their poetry were music to our ears.

The thrill of the poetry and prose readings, however, manifested itself last night at Skidmore College where the Albany Writers Institute had set up camp  for the summer to feature poets and writers all through the month of July, and last night was a star-studded event that really did blow me away.  In the audience was the great writer William Kennedy in a bright lime-green shirt, probably as an homage to St. Patrick.  A lot of other writers from high on up were also there, and I think I saw Philip Roth in the audience, although I wasn’t certain that it was he in the audience.  There were a lot of good poets there last night to hear Honor Moore and Mark Strand read their work.

Honor Moore read from a new memoir that should be coming out in the near future, about her mother and her life.  The layering of how she builds her mother’s chartacter right in front of us spoke to her real brilliance as a memoirist.  I expected to hear straight poetry from her, but instead she introduced a chapter of prose-poetry that could have easily been confused as poetry had she not mentioned in her opening remarks that people sometimes confuse her prose for poetry.  It was a long chapter that she read from, but it was certainly worth listening to.  The women in the audience must have loved it, and the men were certainly appreciative of the skill with which she wrote it.

Mark Strand was up next – a poet with a quirky and often hilarious philosophical bent to his work, almost as though his poetry makes fun of his own philosophical musings that usually tend to take over his work.  And Mark Strand was indeed very funny.  He looked like an aging CEO up on the stage, and his reading of his work had the intention of making the audience laugh hysterically rather than what he meant for his work to do.  He uses a slow and methodical questioning of the universe and its principles in his work – from every stone he turns over, to every person he meets, to every situation he finds himself in.  It is really great work, and directly after the reading, my friend John Allen, who accompanied me to the reading, got Mark Strand’s autograph, and at the reception afterwards, he even took a picture with him for a souvenir of sorts.  I can understand why John likes this poet.  He is funny, clever, and always laughing at the questions that the realms of philosophy brings up in his daily life. 

We went over to the reception afterwards, and there I saw several well-known writers.  We snacked on cheese and crackers and chocolate chip cookies, and after a very long day and a very late night, we traveled home reminiscing about how the reading had turned out so successfully and how my friends had a good time there.  Maybe they will want to go again?  I would be hesitant to bring them there again, as they really had fun one of the few times they had been away from Albany, and there is really nothing else that would top the experience of their first time hearing these really professional and talented poets – and seeing them in the reception area as well.

 Harvey Havel is the author of five novels. This past spring, Stories from the Fall of the Empire, his sixth book and his first collection of short stories, was recently released by Publish America. Later this summer, Two Tickets to Memphis, his sixth novel, is forthcoming from Publish America as well. Havel has previously taught Writing at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey and also at SUNY Albany and the College of St. Rose, both in Albany, New York. Born in Lahore, Pakistan in 1971, Havel now resides full time in Albany, New York.