Recently I was asked by a young poet what I thought of poetry readings. Do I enjoy giving them? she asked. She was looking for advice, worrying about giving a reading for her forthcoming debut collection. Yes, I said after some hesitation, but I don’t think I was entirely convincing.
There are, after all, many kinds of poetry readings. On the downside, there are those readings at bookstores where the microphone is next to the cappuccino machine. And the readings at bars where you’re competing, not just with drunks, but also with a jukebox and sporting events like March Madness. There is also the much-desired poetry reading at a university where you are getting paid a nice check, which seems a miracle in and of itself, but then, it turns out that Bruce Springteen is invited to play on the same evening you’re reading. So you end up standing up in front of a single apologetic professor, a miserable handful of English students who are desperate for extra credit, and rows and rows of aluminum chairs.
But is it worth it? my young poet-friend asked. Do you enjoy going to readings? Again I hesitated, thinking of Koch’s poem, “ Fresh Air.”
Ah, poets, I thought. There are so many wonderful poets who give great readings, and often for little pay or for free. Some I personally prefer to Springsteen. But then of course, there are the poets who don’t read very well, or worse, who give poetry readings a bad name. Fellow poets talk about them in low voices, afraid that their demands and bad habits might be contagious. After all, we poets need to keep our reputations clean. We lean close to hear about the award-winning poet who was flown from a distant coast, at great expense, but refused to read more than three poems. Or the other one, equally famous, who always refused to dine or meet with students. Or yet another, who might be compared to the princess and the pea—no matter what accommodations were found, they were never good enough. And of course there are the tales of the famous poets like Dylan Thomas, who arrived so drunk to one reading, he almost fell off the stage.
I know, I probably shouldn’t talk of such things in a public place like this. Because those are the exceptions. I have attended so many amazing poetry readings . . . readings by the likes of Tim Seibles, Denise Duhamel, Mark Halliday, Jill Allyn Rosser, Naomi Shihab Nye, Claire Bateman, David Lehman, and I could go on. I remember one hysterical readings at the University of Virginia, back in 1981, where Charles Simic and James Tate read together. Tate, wonderful James Tate, burst into laughter, tears streaming down his face. Simic had to complete the reading for him. The only thing as entertaining, I think, was listening to Jennifer Knox read “Chicken Bucket.” I would add that Jennifer Knox reading anything is a delight.
And now I am thinking of my recent reading at Shippensburg University where I was lucky enough to read with two brilliants poets, Jan Beatty and Shara McCallum. The one-and-only Nicole Santalucia hosted the event. Everything about the reading was, well, nothing short of uplifting. What can I say? It reminded me of what I love about poets and poetry.
It also made me wonder, What made that reading so special? The first answer is, Nicole Santalucia. She is one of those born teachers of poetry. Wherever she goes, students follow. I picture her as the Pied Piper of Shippensburg University. Maybe I should say, the Poetry Piper instead. The second answer is Shara McCallum and Jan Beatty. Both woman are fabulous poets and readers, as well as warm, engaging, dynamic, powerful, enlightening, funny, generous . . . I could go on and on.
Sitting here at my desk this morning, I am reading and rereading their books (whose lovely covers my photos don't do justice to), hearing their poems in their melodic voices. Like this one by Shara, from her collection, Madwoman, which she opened with her poem, "Memory:"
I bruise the way the most secreted,
most tender part of a thigh exposed
purples then blues. No spit-shine shoes,
I’m dirt you can’t wash from your feet.
Wherever you go, know I am the wind
accosting the trees, the howling night
of your sea. Try to leave me, I’ll pin you
between a rock and a hard place; will hunt you,
even as you erase your tracks
with the tail ends of your skirt. You think
I’m gristle, begging to be chewed?
No, my love: I’m bone. Rather; the sound
bone makes when it snaps. That dirty
lingering in you, like ruin.
And then there is the beautiful poem, which she would read in her Rasta voice, explaining that she grew up in Jamaica, that her parents were Rastafarian:
Lot’s Wife to Madwoman
Like everyone else yu going get tired of mi.
as happen to all a we, my life been reduce
to one sad, tawdry cliché, Gal, just
lef mi in peace where yu find mi.
Mi never trouble myself with other vultures
who come before. Why yu fancy
yu special? Oh, yu favour mi more
yu say, with yu whole self twist-up,
twist-up with regret. Lawd, how you come
so fool-fool? So big and boasy
to presume yu can fling yuslef
inna anyone story yu choose. Yu feel sey
this is play, ee? Then yu mussa forget
the crucial part: I turned to salt.
Jan Beatty anchored the evening, reading in her beautiful, understated and hypnotic voice from her new collection, Jackknife. I could listen to Jan read for hours.
Here are two of the poems she read on that wonderful evening.
after Roselia Asylum and Maternity Hospital, corner of Cliff and Manilla
This is the house I was born in.
Look at it. Asylum.
Notice the sloping cornice, look at the curved windows, etc.
This is the house I was born in.
The cast-iron balconies/not wide enough for bodies.
Look at the photos:
3 stories, 8 front windows and a wide door.
Dark red brick/inlaid with brown stone.
Leaving the babies there.
Look at the photos, include the photos.
I’m looking for clothes to put my body in. At the family gathering, my sisters-in-law wear sundresses and strappy sandals, which are lovely, & it’s sunny out, but the Kenneth Cole men’s shirts I got on sale seem out of place, like the way I need to wear a lot of metal that can double as weapons if needed & ever since I cut off all my hair years ago to avoid being mistaken for a woman who wants a man in Dockers, I search websites for men with elegant small feet, who I imagine to be my cosmic brothers, then one sister-in-law talks about the new baby, the new baby, so I switch to the men’s talk about the new Camaro, the new Camaro, & the NFL’s jacked-up penalties on hitting, but always swing back to the women, who have a watery way about them I love, who are talking about the zesty seasoning for the bean salad, which is, in fact, delicious.
And then there is this poem by Jan Beatty, which she didn’t read, but which makes me laugh.
Nikki’s in the kitchen of the artist residency,
talking about merkins.
What? I say.
You know, they’re kind of like pussy wigs
Made of faux fur, sort of like wearing earring—
Cute, but I’m not sure who wears them.
6 1/2 months pregnant, she’s jump-talking:
I think of my baby like it’s an arm.
That’s how liberal I am about it.
I don’t know what she means, but
I find out that Kate Winslet wore on
When she filmed The Reader.
Kate tells Allure: Because of years of waxing,
as all of us girls know, it doesn’t come back
quite the way it used to.
Nikki and I drive to the art gallery to see
Rose, the low-rider, painting her ’69 Impala.
Rose, with her dusty boots and sideways cap
makes me stop thinking. Nikki keeps talking:
I can’t see down there because I’m knocked up,
I usually trim it, but I can’t have a relationship
With my parts right now.
I can tell Rose thinks we’re a couple, that
The baby bump in Nikki’s black dress is ours.
The Daily Beast says it’s usually beaver pelts,
while men wear loops and chains, more
like a fur codpiece, and
everyone’s wearing them:
Patricia Arquette in Human Nature,
Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,
Samantha in Sex and the City.
The woman cadaver in Boardwalk Empire
keeping it real for the Prohibition era,
and I wonder, is the hair supposed to look dead, too?
I’m watching Rose, the spray-painted Impala.
She says, I had to rebuild the carburetor
this morning, and I’m nodding,
Mary-Louise Parker in Angels in America,
Jake Gyllenhal in Love and Other Drugs,
Gretchen Mol (all skin) in The Notorious Betti Page,
But so many questions: what about industrial glue
and pelvic burns? What about the chipotle
chicken melt with guacamole ad right above
the “Merkins for Stars” article? And why
Evan Rachel Wood said no in Mildred Pierce?
And I’m thinking about Rose,
what would she want?
Thinking about the word: postiche,
her thick lips, the tattooed X’s
on her tough-woman fingers.