Inaugural Reading of the New Surrealist Institute, June 29

Tiffany Jones

This event was at Tierra Coffee Roasters in Albany, right where I started the Third Thursday readings at the former Cafe Web, lo on these many years ago. This was a reading by writers of both poetry & prose (& polemics, as befits Surrealists). Dating back to their beginnings in the mid-1920s the Surrealists have always been more about politics than the poetry, largely more the politics of the Surrealist organization(s). Andre Breton was constantly bringing new writers into the Surrealist liturgy while excommunicating others. This continued on into the U.S.A. with figures like Franklin Rosemont & the Surrealist Movement in the United States based in Chicago. Perhaps the Surrealists’ greatest contribution to literature is the manifesto. There were glimmers of this in tonight’s reading. Tiffany Jones did the intros.

Harvey Havel

But first up was Harvey Havel, whose short ficitions I’ve heard him read out previously, at the HVWG’s Community of Writers & the Poetry + Prose open mic at the Arts Center in Troy. Tonight he read 2 short fiction pieces, the first about the strange results of experiments in breeding horses, the second about (literally) skeletons in the closet. Often, as in these 2 pieces, his stories are strange, often unsettling (surreal?) fantasies but well-written, told in crisp, clear prose that tricks the reader/listener into seeing the strangeness as normal.

Alaine Cohen

Not so the poetry of Alaine Cohen. Although she has performed on stage as a jazz vocalist, she said this was her first time reading her poetry in public (& thus, like the other readings, except Havel, strangers to any of the many other readings in town). Her first piece was an exercise in excessive alliteration. Her long piece “The Hickory Horned Devil Larva” was essentially the story of the metamorphosis of the larva into a butterfly, but the writing was over-wrought, with too many abstract, vague modifiers (she even used the word “surreal”). I guess she was included as a “Surrealist” because of her frequent use of incongruent adjectives & adverbs which usually is the first thing we notice about “Surrealistic” writing when we first encounter it.

Allen Parmenter

Allen Parmenter may have been a Surrealist, at least based on the silly introduction he provided, but it was difficult to follow his work. He did not enunciate clearly, his words lost in his beard, & perhaps the fault of too much bass in the amplifier. I even missed titles of most of his poems, except for “The Idiot Knight,” about former President George W. Bush, & “Whatever Happened to Dolly Zoom” (maybe). Some of his poems were very short, no more than images, that flew by in a haze.

John Allen also had a silly intro & was described by Tiffany as the “King” of the New Surrealist Institute, ironic considering the “revolutionary” nature of Surrealist politics; I guess there are a few monarchists left. His first piece was a short essay, “The New Surrealist Institute Towards a De-ossification of Thought,” a look at his new group through the history of automatic writing & Surrealism & his own personal history vis-a-vis his confrontation with some of the classics pre-cursors of Surrealism. His poem “And the Frenchman Laughs” was about himself, but invoked images from the life of Rimbaud.

Tiffany brought the reading to a close with a paraphrase of her own piece, “What is a Soul-Mate” (whom she touchingly identified as John Allen). She then asked if anyone else wanted to read, although there had been no open mic sign-up, & was greeted by deep silence for a few respectful seconds, & so she brought the evening to a close. At which point a guy who had come in part way through the reading said he wanted to read John Allen’s last poem & came up to the mic; barely a minute before Tiffany had asked if anyone wanted to read & he didn’t speak up. Moreover, he was wearing a steel gauntlet such as found on a suit of armor & some sort of metal sculpture encasing his neck (mind you it was about 84 degrees outside). I knew I had to get out of there, & did.

Help, help the Surrealists are after me!