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December 15, 2009


For me it's a toss-up between two very good readings. If forced to rank them, the second would be Michael Chabon reading from Kavalier & Clay in Iowa City--all I could think at the time was how lucky his children were to have him reading bedtime stories to them--his tone, and slight changes for dialogue, were perfect. And the best would be Mark Strand, also in Iowa City, reading from Blizzard of One--Delirium Waltz was dizzying and hypnotic and, to an exhausted undergraduate, revelatory.

I once left a Jorie Graham reading in tears. But I think I was a mess when I walked in, so who knows. Great post, btw. Still bummed I missed Greenstreet :(

I don't know what the best poetry reading I've been to is (I haven't been to enough that any could stick out as exceptional), but I'm definitely turned off by the Poetry Voice. I'd go hear you read sometime, though.

John Irving did a reading recently in L.A. and was amazing.

In college, I went to a reading Jill Rosser gave. I learned there what it was I wanted to be when I grew up.

The best reading I've ever been to? Tough question. Terrance Hayes the night of the first Kerry-Bush 2004 debates in Kalamazoo in October was pretty effing great. He read, "The Blue Kool" and sounded exactly like Kool Keith. Phil Levine and Galway Kinnel at the Ypsilan Theatre in Prague (2005) was great because Levine read his work in the same volume and tenacity that I imagine Zeus speaking in. And then there was Lucia Berlin (a little known but perfect teacher of fiction I have ever had at CU) who read in Boulder in 1999 and read "Unmanageable", which is as harrowing and beautiful a short-short I have ever heard or read.


Hearing John Ashbery for the first time when he read to a filled to overflowing KGB bar crowd in 1997 was a revelation. (Really, people spilled into the hallway and hung out the windows on to the fire escape.) I had been reading Self-Portrait and dipping into his other poems but until then hadn't grasped the humor in his poetry. Also, while in college I went to a one-woman show about Edna St. Vincent Millay and the moment when the actress recited "First Fig" was transformative.

you have to go through border patrol to get into west texas these days...?????

I love these!

And yes, Bill, border patrol! The highways here takes us enticingly close to Juarez, Mexico, and I think Big Brother just keeps an extra eye on things in this area.

I would say one of the best readings for me was David Lehman’s 2004 reading at Otis College of Art and Design in LA. For two reasons: he was a great reader, but also I was both excited and relieved to find out that there was more to the poetry world than abstruse, minimal verse---and that a poet could be witty, even downright funny, actually write full sentences, and have people be able to relate instead of scratching their head and saying, “What the hell is that person talking about?!” or “When is this reading going to be over?”

Hmmm ... I can definitely think of the WORST reading. Best is harder. I could listen to recordings of Dylan Thomas read all day - does that count?

Oh wait! I actually just remembered a real one. Saw D.A. Powell read up in Portland a few years back - absolutely incredible. Moving, intense, real.

i thought maybe texas had finally seceded and i had missed it...

Thank you for the great compliment, Amy. I loved giving that reading & even more so knowing that it had such an effect on you.

One reading I attended stands out: James Schuyler at the old DIA headquarters on Mercer Street in NYC in, I think, 1988. It was his first reading! (He was incredibly shy and nervous.) Ashbery introduced him. The audience, and it was quite an audience, loved him madly.

"...when one considers how spoken word and slam poetry often manage to entertain even when the language, on the page, isn’t that exciting..."

The best readings I've been to have included (or been composed entirely of) spoken word/slam artists. I've seen amazing performances by Sunni Patterson, Chancelier 'Xero' Skidmore, Anis Mojgani, Krista Franklin, Joaquin Zihautanejo...just to name a few. But beyond the stage presence, there is also serious skill exhibited on the page. There are many spoken word/slam artists who struggle just as much with their language as their performance. As a current MFA-candidate who struggles to balance my spoken word and page craft, I find that poets more comfortable with the page often use the idea of 'theatrics' as an easy label to dismiss spoken word. (Coincidentally, this is also a world they are often rather unfamiliar with, as it takes place largely outside of the academy...) There is less exciting craft everywhere—whether it be in workshop, literary journals, or PSI slam events. But while I ABSOLUTELY agree with much of this entry, I am also hurt by the alienation implicit in the quick dismissal of the craft behind spoken word. There are many artists who do both extremely well. And, yes, that is intimidating to those poets who might not have thought about tending to their own readings/performance.

I figured someone would pick up on that and start debating it, ZT. However, please note that I said "even when the language, on the page, isn't that exciting." Meaning that often a spoken word or slam artist can entertain the audience even *when* the language of a particular piece is badly crafted. It's not in any way a statement claiming that pieces in those genres are, by rote, poorly written. I'm not dismissive of or interested in alienating people who write in any genre, honestly. It just doesn't seem inclusive, open-minded or generous.

In fact, if anything, I'm actually saying that the addition of theatrics, or the performance element--whatever you want to call it--is actually an important and study-worthy aspect of craft. Which, when you think about it, is the point of this entry in the first place.

But, as an aside, I do happen to think slam/spoken word and poetry written primarily for the page are different genres. Not better, not worse. Different. The former REQUIRES an element of performance--without it, all good writing aside, a piece fails in that genre. Poetry for the page (though, as I've said, should ideally be read well when read out loud to people) doesn't actually require skills like, say, dramatic monologuing, which performance poetry does.

Also, I should note that I really like watching slam, and have seen some brilliant stuff. Taylor Mali knocked me out slamming at the Nuyorican a decade ago, for example. So good.

It has been a long time since I went to a poetry reading but then I was very impressed by the reader although I cant remember her name now (thats not good is it).

I myself though have had a few failures myself as my shyness seems to get in the way and is probably best read by the individual themselves.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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