NEW YORK, N.Y. – As Uma Thurman rose from her chair during a poetry tribute at Lincoln Center, she turned and bowed to the reader who preceded her, visual artist Lorna Simpson.
“That’s called when the evening peaks,” Thurman said Wednesday night after Simpson had completed June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights,” an impassioned statement of resilience in the face of male violence and oppression. With such lines “I am the history of battery assault and limitless armies/armies against whatever I want to do with my mind,” the 40-year-old poem inspired by women in the apartheid system of South Africa seemed as modern as the #MeToo movement and Thurman’s recent allegations of abuse by Harvey Weinstein. Thurman was the final reader at “Poetry & the Creative Mind,” a tribute to National Poetry Month and to the power of art to speak across time.
Award-winning poet Terrance Hayes was the host, and Thurman, Simpson, Christine Lahti and Patty Griffin among the featured performers who read, and sang, before a capacity crowd in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. It was the 16th annual staging of Poetry & the Creative Mind, presented by the Academy of American Poets and a demonstration that you don’t have to be a poet to appreciate poetry. The backgrounds of those reading included acting (Thurman, Lahti and Tim Daly), music (Griffin), radio (“On Being” host Krista Tippett), science/literature (Janna Levin) and cooking (former White House pastry chef Bill Yosses). Some readers offered detailed explanations of which poems they had selected, while others, such as Daly and Griffin, acknowledged they weren’t sure what their poems actually meant but that they liked them anyway.
“It does things to my brain and heart,” Griffin said before reading the Rumi poem “Wax.” Poetry has long been wedded to music and the academy has a tradition of including musical performers, from Sting to Kris Kristofferson. A guitar awaited Griffin to the left of the stage and after the Rumi poem, the Grammy winning singer-songwriter sang a new, melancholy ballad that was inspired by a dream about Billie Holiday. Yosses also managed to work in his profession by reading Adrienne Su’s “Four Sonnets About Food,” clearly favouring the lines about “baked red fish, clear soup and bread.”
The words “Donald Trump” were never said, but his presidency was the assumed target as Daly and others referred to the current times and the poems from the past that seemed to address them. Daly recited W.H. Auden’s classic inspired by the outbreak of World War II, “September 1, 1939,” and prescient in its fears for democracy and “what dictators do.” Lahti dedicated her reading to women’s voices and stories, including Anne Sexton’s “Her Kind” and Louise Gluck’s pained “The Red Poppy,” and its closing words “I am speaking now/the way you do. I speak/because I am shattered.” Thurman ended with “If,” Rudyard Kipling’s well memorized ode to manly grace and courage, recited by countless students but for the night wholly belonging to her:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools.