Little Corner Reading Series:
Bhanu Kapil and Paul Singleton III
Saturday, Nov. 21, 8 p.m.
The Shed
807 E. Main St., Durham

Duke University has long been a hub for weird, interesting poetry—if you knew how to find it. Its poetry reading series, formerly known as Minor American and later as Manic Caravan, has hosted both world-renowned writers like Eileen Myles and up-and-coming talents like Philadelphia’s Ryan Eckes. But if you weren’t already plugged into academic life, these events could seem inaccessible, tucked away in the stately parlors of Duke’s East Campus.

That has changed this season under the direction of English graduate student Jess Stark, who has paired the revamped series with a new poetry and visual art journal, The Invisible Bear. “I wanted to try to expand the audience and have the series as a resource [for] the larger community of Durham,” she says.

Stark is operating the series under a new name, the Little Corner Reading Series, in a new home, Golden Belt-based jazz club The Shed. Run by her husband, Daniel Stark, it’s a welcoming space that offers drinks and, sometimes, live music following the readings. After beginning in October, Little Corner returns this week with British-Indian experimental prose writer Bhanu Kapil, paired with Durham poem Paul Singleton III. The series continues through April with readings by John Yau, Nancy Kuhl and Tyrone Williams.

While the series is now more public, it still doesn’t stint on challenging writing. This year’s group of readers couldn’t be more aesthetically diverse, but they share a desire for poetry that brings together different worlds.

Speaking to Kapil is as disorienting and beautiful as reading her poetic prose, where philosophical ideas merge with science-fiction conceits, drawing out the idea that to be an immigrant is to be a cyborg wandering a dystopian landscape bursting with sensory detail. She mines sensorial experience and memory to narrate the perceptual shift effected by living between cultures. As she writes in Incubation: A Space for Monsters, “The destiny of my body as separate from childhood: I came here to hitchhike. I came here to complete a thing I began in another place.”

Kapil recalls the contrast between her native India, with its bright colors, and her arrival in the dull gray rain of England as an inspiration for her interest in sense memory and her fascination with geographical and temporal dislocation. “The way I write is essentially these fragments, it’s all the notebook life,” she says. “It’s all intended to be the basis for a novel that could shift time in my own body and the body of my reader, too.”

Geography has also been central to the development of March’s reader Tyrone Williams’ critical, densely referential lyric poetry. In his early career as a poet, he drew inspiration from the political ferment of 1970s Detroit.

“There were a lot of small publications around the Wayne State University area—fanzines, magazines and underground presses,” Williams says, citing the radical politics and culture journal Solid Ground as an early inspiration. This vibrant culture of idea exchange, argument and political engagement within the Detroit community paved the way for the polyvocal nature of Williams’ current poetic practice. He sees poetry as a potent site of encounter between different historical and political perspectives, explaining, “I’m trying to capture the moment at any particular place and time where you have all these different narratives encountering, clashing, affirming, attacking.”

A poet, art critic and publisher, John Yau, who reads at Little Corner in April, feels that it is crucial for poetry to be in dialogue with other arts. He remembers wanting to live in New York because it was the kind of cosmopolitan place where both the art world and the poetry world could be in dialogue, but acknowledges that as early as 1978, the ability of broke artists to live in the city was already being challenged.

In his characteristically affable but sharp way, Yau says that when he started as an art critic, he was terribly naïve about how poorly it paid, but wanted to learn to write in a variety of genres. He began writing art criticism as a way of gaining distance from the literary world, which he then saw as conservative and talking mainly to itself. He looked up to poet-curator Frank O’Hara, thinking, “If there are poets like Frank O’Hara writing [in the art world], I can live in that world.” He adds, “Also, I like all the forms, so I thought if I liked them all, I could use them all. It was a challenge to myself.”

Yau sees his press, Black Square Editions, as an opportunity to highlight neglected writers he loves, such as the Surrealist Pierre Reverdy, and publish challenging works by Asian-American writers. “One part of me wants to find Asian-Americans who are more experimental, without it being the point of the press, but a part of the press,” he explains.

This gathering of poets confirms why poetry readings remain so important in the age of social media. Live readings are not just a public performance of an already-written text. They are a chance to see and feel the physicality of the reader, to hear the texture of the poet’s language. Williams calls readings an opportunity for “cutting up the poems and remixing them, so to speak.” Kapil’s live performances go beyond the written word, incorporating aspects of performance art and ritual. This way, she says, she can activate a bodily memory that is otherwise difficult to capture outside of its original immigrant geographic context—Delhi and London.

These physical encounters are especially important for readers who have traveled a long way, often to meet a small, attentive audience. “My friend Lamont Steptoe, he’s a Vietnam veteran; I met him at a bus station,” Yau says. “He was going on this long bus tour, reading all over America, and he said, ‘Well, you gotta win ‘em over one by one.’ And I thought, ‘Really, that’s it. That’s why we read.’”