Hi travel pal!
It’s almost six p.m., and daytime is only a glowing line of bright yellow clinging to the black hills of West Texas. We just rolled through border patrol, where a very nice female officer inquired about our citizenship. “USA,” we said, and she snickered. Me with my Apple laptop plugged via converter into the car charger, and the GPS system suction-cupped to the windshield telling us it’s “recalculating.” When she asked where we’re going and we said Marfa we got yet another eye-roll, my crazy-looking dog turning around in his doggie-booster seat and Josh flashing a charming smile behind his aviators and hipster-fisherman’s cap. Small artists’ community in the desert? Umm, obviously.
In this case, we were exactly what the officer expected. But during the trip today, with nothing—and I mean nothing—but scrub brush and the occasional metal pre-fab shed for a hundred miles at a time (what’s in those things, anyway?), Josh and I started talking about a particular unexpected phenomenon we sometimes witness: the terribly good or wonderfully bad poetry reading.
It all started because, between This American Life podcasts and naps, I sat in the passenger seat and read aloud each of the poems from the “56 Days” section of Kate Greenstreet's latest book “The Last 4 Things.” For those of you who know Greenstreet’s absolutely wonderful poems, they’re an eerie, disjunctive lot, full of recurring lines, reappearing characters and settings, random bits of dialogue between unknown persons and scarce little linear storytelling. Which, honestly, isn’t such an easy read out loud (though she does quite the job herself, as anyone who’s heard her knows). “The eye fills in what it knows,” she writes in one poem, but so does the ear. Surrealistic and leaping, the listener of these poems can never really anticipate what might come next, so the speaker has to slow down, stay focused, and, ultimately, use the voice to convey some of the emotional import and changes in mood the text attempts. I did my best.
I think this difficulty rings true for much non-narrative poetry, but also for any poetry read in public to an audience. And that’s where I declared a major problem I have with graduate poetry-writing programs in general: the lack of focus on public reading skills, as though those weren’t integral to our work as professional poets. As a PhD student, I’m not required (nor even encouraged) to take public speaking or drama courses. Nowhere in the curricula is it acknowledged that, because we poets have a devastatingly small audience matched by terrible underrepresentation in book stores, most of us will sell the majority of our books (if we’re lucky enough to publish some) at poetry readings. Shouldn’t that fact be considered when deciding what professional poets should learn in school?
Josh agreed that readings are important, but brought up an interesting point. Though we concurred on some fairly obvious ways that poetry recitations can fail (we’ll get to those later), Josh noted that a too-close focus on extremely stylized reading might suffer the same potential dangers as over-workshopped poems: a slide into the crowd-pleasing “middle ground” that might not actually work for every poet. While on the page the workshop mentality can lead to blandness, in a reading it would probably promote the dramatic monologue style reading, which is great for some people but wouldn’t work so well for, say, language poetry.
Still, when one considers how spoken word and slam poetry often manage to entertain even when the language, on the page, isn’t that exciting, it’s easy to see that good performance (which a poet can achieve in myriad ways, despite Josh’s fear) coupled with excellent writing is ideal. From Albert Goldbarth, whose performative, yet funny and tender reading at the Hammer Museum in LA last week just knocked me out, to my dear friend Eric McHenry’s humble, snarky and utterly charming bit two years ago at the Westchester Poetry Conference, to the sassy and sexy and stage-worthy recitations of Jill Alexander Essbaum, to the gorgeous spectacle of (hearing-impaired poet) Ilya Kaminsky’s roller-coaster intonations, I’ve seen remarkable poetry readings at all volumes and with all sorts of attitudes.
However, I’ve yet to hear a good reading where the poets:
1 – clearly didn’t care. I’ve heard so many of my colleagues say “I’m such a bad reader,” like it wasn’t a big deal; like it couldn’t be changed with some work and practice. I’m a little offended by this, honestly. People come to the venue, they take their seats and (hopefully) sit quietly and respectfully so that you might share your art with them. Don’t we owe people enough respect to try to do a good job, entertain them, or at least convey our ideas well?
2 – mumbled, didn’t enunciate or articulate words, spoke way to quickly or didn’t project at all. This is obvious. Poetry can be difficult enough to understand even when the listeners get the words. Help the kids out.
3 – over-explained the poems. Personally, I sometimes make jokes about situations or people in my poems before I say them. It’s my defense mechanism. But when a poet tells more than is absolutely necessary about a poem, it robs the audience of what Josh called “the pleasure of revelation.”
4 – had no stage presence at all. This can mean a few different things. Some poets shrink into themselves. Some ramble. Some seem scared out of their minds.
5—speak in a poetry voice. You know the one. The lilting up at the end of every line. The pauses in strange places. The absolute inability to realize that poetry (though not prose) is written in sentences, usually, or at least phrases, and might benefit from being vocalized as such.
6 – don’t understand their audience. When Jim Shepherd, an amazing fiction writer I just read for the first time this year, came to USC, we had a really funny conversation about choosing the wrong piece for the crowd. “Their eyes glaze over,” he said, blanching at the memory. Once fiction writers start a story, though, it’s hard for them to stop or turn back. As poets, we have the opportunity to cater our reading to the crowd, watch reactions, choose poems more on the fly depending on how it’s going. All it takes is a little observation.
Anyway, this is getting long, and I’m sleepy and full from a classically Texan dinner at the Cattle Ranch Restaurant and Lounge (where the clientele were all truckers, the chicken fried chicken was served with awesome white gravy, and the redneck-looking guy was—as generally happens—unfailingly polite and super friendly to boot.) So I’ll just finish by saying, there are endless ways to be winning, but the main one just seems to be caring about the audience, and realizing that what we do is an art of communication, whether on the page or in front of a microphone. And besides, I’ve always wanted to buy more books after good poetry readings than bad ones. But certainly none of this matters if the work isn’t good in the first place. So that’s obviously the priority.
Now, dears, your question:
What was the best reading you’ve ever been to, and why?
(*Much thanks to Robert
Frost, who first wrote the line I stole for this blog entry title, and to Timothy
Steele, whose also stole it from Frost for his book title.)
(*Much thanks to Robert Frost, who first wrote the line I stole for this blog entry title, and to Timothy Steele, whose also stole it from Frost for his book title.)