Streep, Fey, Perez among readers at poetry gala

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NEW YORK (AP) — Sir Patrick Stewart wasn’t about to miss the chance to appear on the same stage with Meryl Streep, Tina Fey, Rosie Perez and Kevin Kline.

And if that meant learning a poem or two, he was happy to do the homework.

“It was a no-brainer,” the actor said Thursday night after he was among a dozen readers at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall for the 12th annual “Poetry & the Creative Mind,” an all-star celebration of National Poetry Month presented by the Academy of American Poets.

“Poetry has been an important part of my life, particularly dramatic poetry, and when I got wind of who else was going to be on the platform with me I knew it was a night not to be missed,” he said.

Empty seats were rare at the majestic, 1,000-seat venue, where Stewart, Streep and others gave a mini-survey of modern American verse, from the apprehension of Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes” to the triumphs of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.” Most simply stood up and read, but some cracked jokes, sang or begged the audience to silence the Greek chorus of cell phones.

Rosie Perez, who reveled in Angelou’s brassy verse (“Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise?”), remained off stage before her performance because of a sudden coughing fit.

“It’s all Tina Fey’s fault,” Perez explained as Fey, seated behind her, shook her head and smiled. Did Fey tell her something so funny she couldn’t breathe? No, Perez, said after the event, she gave her a “medicated lozenge” that didn’t quite soothe her throat.

Fey, meanwhile, had everyone laughing with an expert run through of James Tate’s “The List of Famous Hats,” a spoof about the hat and head of Napoleon that might have been composed by Fey herself:

___

Napoleon’s hat is an obvious choice I guess to list as a famous hat, but that’s not the hat I have in mind.

That was his hat for show.

I am thinking of his private bathing cap, which in all honesty wasn’t much different than the one any jerk might buy at a corner drugstore now

___

Grammy-winning musician Esperanza Spalding brought out her bass for a bluesy, foot-tapping rendition of Langston Hughes’  “Life is Fine,” while Streep read a pair of poems, by Richard Wilbur and Sylvia Plath, about parenthood. Kevin Kline nodded to his fellow parents on stage and in the audience with Billy Collin’s comic guilt trip and ode to overachievement, “To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl”:

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Frankly, who cares if Annie Oakley was a crack shot at 15

or if Maria Callas debuted as Tosca at 17?

We think you’re special just being you —

playing with your food and staring into space.

___

Stewart chose a personal favorite, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s impassioned nature poem, “God’s World.” The British actor said he learned of the poem around the same time he fell for autumn in the Northeast.

“Whenever I heard people talk about the fall in New England, I used to think, ‘It’s autumn! It’s like anywhere else! It’s just autumn!” he said during the post-event reception.

“One night I arrived at a friend’s cottage in upstate New York, way out in the country. And I got up early in the morning. Nobody was up. I got dressed and went out,” he said. “I walked about 50 yards down the road and burst into tears because I had never seen anything so beautiful. Nothing. And that same weekend somebody gave me that poem to look at.”

Most of the poems were decades old, but a couple were virtually brand new. The night’s only non-celebrity reader, Michaela Coplen, was a student poet who recited her own “Redeployment.”

Billy Crudup, after reading works by Pulitzer Prize winners Yusef Komunyakaa and Philip Levine, pulled out a sheet of paper from his pocket and introduced a yearbook poem called “Life Is Weird,” by his grade school son.

“Life is weird,” Crudup read in his best boyish manner.

“Life is a pair of pants — that falls down a lot.”

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