Milwaukee poet Matt Cook
was the featured reader at the Foot of the Lake Collective's poetry reading in the Windhover Center for the Arts last night in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. He was introduced as a "performance poet," and I'm just far enough out of the mainstream that I don't know what that means exactly. So, as I often do with unfamiliar vocabulary, I find the meaning by examining the context. A performance poet, if Matt Cook is representative, might be defined as a poet who, on the one hand, doesn't comb his hair and gestures like one of the wilder and less mild minor Old Testament prophets; and who, on the other hand, like a stand-up comic, keeps his audience in stitches.
Yes, he kept us in stitches. Some of us couldn't catch our breaths and required oxygen. Funny schtuff, as Johnny would say.
I do think poetry is big enough that sometimes you can play it for laughs; it doesn't always have to be about The Great Cosmic Significance of Things. Most of the time, but not always.
"He bucks tradition," we heard during the introduction. "He does things his own way."
"He chronicles the Milwaukee landscape...."
"Oh, you got that off the internet, didn't you?" Matt said from the back of the room, implying not only that what you find on the internet might be inaccurate, but also that it seems to stay around forever.
Matt came to the podium. "People are sitting very close to me...." he noticed. If it bothered him, it didn't bother him for long.
He read us poems from his second collection, Eavesdrop Soup.
"How about something like this? This one, 'Walking Through Snow.'"
"He would call me up to ask if we could walk through the snow together. I like walking through the snow with crazy men, so I went...."
"For a second there, I mistook him for an important curiosity...."
"All the passengers were making progress...."
A Milwaukee bus driver stops the bus to let a squirrel cross the road: "An act of refined sophistication not available in the cultural centers...."
"It's obscene, the way some people put their fingers inside bowling balls...."
"It was like I was turning into a radio station, which was okay because my radio had broken...."
"Thank you, Walt Whitman, for doing what you did, so we don't have to write like they did before you...."
"The Norton Critical Edition of your mom...."
"Poetry about sex - when it's bad, it's terrible; and when it's good, it's still pretty bad...."
"We were in the backyard playing dead. Playing dead was more fun than playing backgammon...."
"Whatever happened to static electricity?"
"Here's something different from that...."
"So - essentially, my wife got flashed, and the cops came over and told her she was old...."
"... a kind of weird cemetery extremist."
"Today is the last holiday before the first day of the rest of your life...."
"Naw, not that one...."
"Surely I'll die not understanding the noises my furnace makes...."
"... morally superior dishwashing liquid."
"He was on the vanguard of belligerent simplicity...."
"The poem goes on from there, but that was the best part of it...."
"I gather people want to get past futility into the period of post-futility...."
"I had no idea I would write about Hungarian Goulash today...."
"The worthless song birds are up in the trees again...."
After Matt finished his reading, as usual, there was an "open mic" session. I read a poem by William Stafford, "You Reading This, Be Ready," written two days before he died; it is good instruction on this, the last holiday before the first day of the rest of our lives.
Reminder: I'll be one of the featured readers at the Foot of the Lake reading at the Windhover on Tuesday, March 6, 7:00 p.m. Be there or be square.