Saturday, January 3, 2009

Friday Night in Tempe: First Friday Poetry at Changing Hands Bookstore with Rosemarie Dombrowski & Shawnte Orion

Last evening we returned, after a too-long absence, to one of metro Phoenix's great treasures and one of the best bookstores in the United States, Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe. Although our residence in the Valley has been sporadic over the last decade, Changing Hands on McClintock Drive and its earlier, much-mourned store on Mill Avenue near ASU, has always been a haven for us.

The legendary store opened way back in 1974, decades before we'd come here, and in 2007 was named Publishers Weekly's Bookseller of the Year. When we were living in Mesa in 2000 and our Silicon Valley Diet came out, Gayle Shanks and her staff were very nice to us.

Anyway, we went to many events at Changing Hands during the times we lived in Arizona and the times we were just being a snowbird, as now, or a long-term visitor. We can remember a late 90s David Sedaris reading that was so crowded that we never actually got to see the author, just hear him.

Of course, many times we'd just come in and browse and walk around and sit with a book or magazine we bought and read at the bakery café that's attached to the store. Indie Bound calls Changing Hands "a store that is a work of art--soft curves, beautiful murals, interesting nooks filled with books and gifts for all tastes and budgets."

Of course, they're not immune to the current Great Recession; a sign on the front door said they have to cut back like the rest of us and so are no longer giving cash for used books. But having survived for 35 years through other bad times, we're sure they'll be around for a while, performing a needed function for the community here.

We used to enjoy going to the First Friday poetry readings, where we'd sometimes hear the work of friends who taught English, as we did, or were students at ASU and Mesa Community College. So we were glad to see that First Friday is still going strong.

Unfortunately, the evening's featured reader, Bryan Hall, whose chapbook, Walks on Wheels, was published in 2003 by Ione Press, was ill. We hope he gets better soon, but there were good substitutes in the persons of Shawnte Orion and Rosemarie Dombrowski, whose work was skillful enough to keep our mind from wandering, which it too often has done during hundreds of poetry readings since we first started attending them at Brooklyn College back in the late 60s.

Rosemarie is editor of the great poetry joural Merge (Bryan is assistant editor) and teaches at ASU Downtown. Our favorite of her poems is "Plausible Heaven":

Grandma always wore babooshkas
on Sunday, her gray hair
roped around her head the way
rosary beads
exsanguinate the fingers.
Her little room was churchly, too:
all green beans
and provolone cheese,
a drawer of saintly scapulars,
the collection of self-laminated clovers
taped to the closet door.

And surrogate grandpa Allen,
so beautifully distinct
in outlaw bearding,
humming Buddhist prayers
while dropping acid
and cavorting (man on man)—
the indistinguishable smells of
moon and sun, the barely recognizable
barometric pressure of the hour.

And so long as granny
didn’t know the details,
they’d both wear scarves and
fixate on devotional tunes,
their voices slightly flat before the altar:

that unavoidable union of
lick and clover
near the epicenter of
resurrection—some undisclosed,
deserted lot
between Haight and Kansas City.

My prayer (and grandma please forgive me)
of togetherness tonight, my
mindful, starving vision at eleven:

Allen (with his glasses) reading
letters of devotion,
twigs of wisdom
that they’ve likely shared up there;

excreted into pots outside my Phoenix door

Like Rosemarie, Shawnte Orion has appeared in dozens of literary journals and he's a great performer. His chapbook The Infernal Gaze was published by Red Booth Review (our old friend and colleague W.T. Pfefferle, Red Booth's proprietor, kindly once published our story about Cuban-Chinese restaurants, later collected in Silicon Valley Diet).

We especially like Shawnte's poem, "Arizona Wildfires, like Global Diplomacy":

Months without rain
crisp pine needles
into an incendiary forest

Lightning without rain
ignites the inevitable blaze
that will devour the Coconino

A controlled burn- they set fires
to prevent the fire, establishing a perimeter
with deliberate patterns, but winds

Carry flames across scorched fields
and throughout the ponderosas, consuming
hundreds of peripheral saplings
easily dismissed
as collateral damage

And his Sarah Palin poem was great, too.

The reading ended with some nicely translated Rumi poems. Thanks to the poets and Changing Hands Bookstore for another wonderful event. We'll be back when we can.

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