You are one lucky dog if you are in Iowa City, Iowa, tonight July 9, or in St. Paul, Minnesota, tomorrow July 10. You’ll get to go checkout the Graywolf poetry tour at either Prairie Lights Books or Common Good Books. I and about 50 other audience members were at the kick-off reading last night at BookCourt here in New York City, and what a yummy treat it was!
Now, I’ve been to a lot of poetry readings, to which I sometimes say Ho-hum. I mean really, I love poetry – always have and always will, but sometimes: Poetry Reading: Ho-hum. Right?
Not so last night. Maybe, just maybe, there’s something new in the air, something different. Something more than the usual lilting enunciation with the careful hold and lift at the linebreak. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – it’s the way so many of us have read poetry outloud for years. And I’m not saying we should all become masters of the art of the poetry slam – the sometimes in-your-face rapid fire of the rap and rant. But there’s something Sophie Cabot Black, Stephen Burt, and Brian Russell offered last night that’s in-between, something where the words were allowed to carry their meaning without so much “meaning” being emphasized. Sort of like we do in speaking. Yes, speaking. The words were allowed to carry their meaning in the same way they do when we speak, so that for the most part the poems last night were “spoken” rather than “read” outloud.
How utterly refreshing! How full of fun and personality and conversation this reading was. The audience wasn’t being done unto, we were being talked to, engaged. Now, that doesn’t mean that the poetry was all light and funny and without depth and power. On the contrary. Many of the poems Sophie Cabot Black read, for instance, were about a dying friend. Her poems engaged, she said, in a kind of call-and-response to the poems the friend was writing in his final months. And so the conversational tone of them, the sense of discussion between the two poets, and the ongoing search for answers and meaning was able to shine through in the reading of “It Never Goes Away.”
…We never know
How much it takes, this business
Of departure; you stare into the ocean
Outdone by all you want. Enough
Of what continues. Here it comes again,
The turning of dark and dirt, unable to stop:
Love, even with everything to be sad about.
Likewise, the poems in Brian Russell’s book The Year of What Now create a narrative from a husband’s point-of-view of a wife’s serious medical diagnosis, her subsequent treatment, and the husband’s response. In his “speaking” of the poems Russell recited from memory, not looking at the page but rather telling the story directly to the audience. There was an element of good theater in his delivery, “good” meaning that Russell allowed the poems rather than the speaker to tell the story. Clearly he’d practiced a good long time to get out of the way of the words of the poems, and the poems reflect that both on the page and in the performance last night. These are the ultimate lines of the title poem of the book:
I can’t remember the date
he died or even
the year of what now
are we the pure products and what
does that even mean pure isn’t it
obvious we are each our own culture
alive with the virus that’s waiting
to unmake us.
The middle reader of the evening was Stephen Burt, who brought a sort of John Cheever meets Eddie Izzard flair to his portion of the evening. While many of the poems reflect a sort of joyous suburban banality – babies and their parents all napping in unison, a leafy cloudless college campus – “The Paraphilia Odes,” for example, let us peek past the living room curtain into the private lives of the people who live there:
O my companions in microfiber & leather
O my companions in spangle & tulle
O my companions cat carriers in hand
Great treasure has been given to you to lose
Burt’s glee in the paradoxes of a being a real multifaceted person living a seemingly conventional life is apparent, again, in his reciting of his poems. He is happy to let us in, to tell the whole truth of the world as he sees it, as sometimes banal and sometimes quixotic as it is, and he spoke the poems to the audience as if taking us into a fun confidence.
Even if you can’t make it to Iowa City or St. Paul in the next couple days, get the new books – The Exchange, Belmont, and The Year of What’s Next – and read them. Read them out loud and let the language do the heavy lifting of finding the meaning of the poems. There’s real life, real joy, really something happening here.