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Monsters Of Poetry showcases four poets who grapple with existence in a dying world

Caryl Pagel, Daniel Khalastchi, Chessy Normile, and Jeffrey McDaniel will read their work on November 18 at the North Street Cabaret.
Headshots of four writers are shown against a background of a metal plate and flames. Photo (from left to right): Daniel Khalastchi, photo by Barry Phipps. Caryl Pagel, photo by author. Chessy Normile, photo courtesy of the New York Times. Jeffrey McDaniel, photo courtesy of the Poetry Foundation. Background fire image by Gaurav Joshi/Unsplash. Background metal plate image by Gareth David/Unsplash.
Photo (from left to right): Daniel Khalastchi, photo by Barry Phipps. Caryl Pagel, photo by author. Chessy Normile, photo courtesy of the New York Times. Jeffrey McDaniel, photo courtesy of the Poetry Foundation. Background fire image by Gaurav Joshi/Unsplash. Background metal plate image by Gareth David/Unsplash.

Caryl Pagel, Daniel Khalastchi, Chessy Normile, and Jeffrey McDaniel will read their work on November 18 at the North Street Cabaret.

The world is on fire and the poets are—metaphorically, of course—putting out the flames. You can witness this ongoing battle at the North Street Cabaret during the Friday, November 18 edition of the Monsters Of Poetry series. The long-running Madison-based literary reading series has hosted dozens of established poets and writers across the nation. This latest Monsters event features Chessy Normile, Jeffrey McDaniel, Daniel Khalastchi, and Caryl Pagel. Pagel and Khalastchi are Monsters Of Poetry veterans—they read at the inaugural Monsters reading in October of 2009 at the long-gone Project Lodge on East Johnson Street.

Normile is currently the Ronald Wallace Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing at UW-Madison. Her book Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party (Copper Canyon Press, 2020) won the 2020 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, selected by Li-Young Lee. Her poetry carries a kind of tenderness, a soft resilience that is honest and cutting. She meditates on the mundanity of her lived experiences and reckons with the ephemeral quality of happiness. Chasing after it is impossible. Included in the collection is “Feeling It,” in which she writes:

My favorite song plays. / It makes me cry. / May that it play forever. / I’m feeling the kind of happiness / you try to hold onto— / so lit and soft / it’s almost sadness. / Put Lonesome Crowded West on again.

McDaniel has written seven books of poetry, the latest being Thin Ice Olympics, published by Write Bloody in 2022. He is a recipient of an NEA fellowship and currently teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. I first read his poem “The Quiet World” in the ninth grade and was awestruck at the sparseness of the language and how McDaniel’s economical writing cuts directly to the marrow of the emotion. Here, McDaniel writes of a world where the government allots each person only 167 words per day, and shows how love could look in a dystopian nightmare:

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Late at night, I call my long distance lover, / proudly say I only used fifty-nine today. / I saved the rest for you. / When she doesn’t respond, / I know she’s used up all her words, / so I slowly whisper I love you / thirty-two and a third times. / After that, we just sit on the line / and listen to each other breathe.

Khalastchi’s third book, American Parables, published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2022, is the winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry. Grounded in his experiences as an Iraqi Jewish American, Khalastchi writes about the complexities of love, freedom, politics, and religion. With his words, he carves out the shadow of a democracy in poems including “Deviation On Returns“:

Maybe in- /surance ensured my / mouth would be / served, sutured and / gauzed right-white / and pretty—or maybe / you hemorrhaged a weak / year’s pay without asking / your wife to park / the dark wheels heel-pitched / in our driveway, a damage still / damned

Caryl Pagel’s Free Clean Fill Dirt, published by the University of Akron Press earlier this year, pays homage to interruption. Pagel uses the caesura, a pause in the line of a poem, to exhibit the fragmentation of historical and geological lineages. Memory is ethereal and broken, and Pagel mimics this through the breaks in the line and the gaps on the page, which makes the poem feel like it’s breathing. This effect is especially prominent in “9F“:

What is the memory of a stem— / its bend / Where / will you go when you leave / What / has the city’s / past’s past abandoned / The gazebo / The observatory / Exhaust

All of these poets carry a deep emotional charge in their work and it’ll be exciting to see them read and perform their work in an embodied way. I remember attending my first Monsters Of Poetry reading in 2021. It was the middle of winter and I sat front row in a room full of people, feeling the warmth of the spotlight radiating on the stage in front of me. I listened to the poets who bared their truth to strangers so compellingly, I feel as though they’ve touched my soul. Just by reading a few of these poets’ work, I see all of them show up on the page so vibrantly, teeming with life, amidst the slow death of the world outside it.

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