So, I was contemplating my reading to celebrate the publication of my new chapbook, The Accidental Present (Finishing Line Press, 2012). The more I thought about it, the less I wanted to hear myself go on for a half hour or more, as much as I like my poems. It occurred to me that many of them might be done better justice if read by other people, some of them not necessarily poets, just friends, coworkers, and neighbors who have good voices and strong characters. Imagine that!
And so was born the idea for my "poetic happening," a "community poetry read" in which the majority of my poems would be read by others. There are 22 poems in the chapbook, and I had fifteen readers each read one poem. I read three, one of which was the title poem. We went through the poems in the order that they appear, skipping a couple along the way. Hearing them read aloud that way, I discovered I had put them in an order for a reason. More surprises.
I had assigned the poems in the two weeks prior to the reading, so that my designated readers had a chance to familiarize themselves with the words. I did not "test" anyone before the reading. I just trusted them to do the best they could, even though some of them told me they were nervous. Some were afraid that they would not do the particular poem justice.
Let me say right here, not a single person disappointed me. In the moments when the readers were on stage, I was blown away by the care with which each person read. I could tell that each person had clearly practiced, and had thought about giving the assigned poem some personal power from his or her own inner repertoire of thought and emotion.
For me, it was as though all the voices in my head that I cannot actually speak the way I hear them came to life during that 45 minutes. There was the voice of the angry woman, the loving man, and the anguished poet. Janet, who is in her 80s, read a poem in defiance of getting old. Lynn, who is seeking to grow and evolve, read a poem about just that. Ed, who had some training in the monastery many eons ago, read a poem with scriptural references, and Al, who has the slightest southern drawl and an occasional stammer, read a poem in which God invites us to stop complaining and join him for a shot of tequila.
If I may say, the effect was quite mesmerizing.
It was something theatrical, layered, magical. Yes, they are "my" poems, but I like to think that they belong to the world, and hearing others read them made that real for a short while. Lest you would question the sanity of a poet not reading her own work, please read more about the evening from the perspective of an observer, essayist and Stoneboat associate editor, Signe Jorgenson, who witnessed the whole thing:
And, if you need to treat yourself to something really enriching one of these days, get your friends to read your poems for you at your next reading. You will be amazed at how wonderful you sound when it is not the sound of your own voice you hear.