“How’d you like it?” I’m asked when the reading is over.
I don’t know what to say. It's poetry. I could say, "I enjoyed it," which I had. But poetry deserves more. I might like it, enjoy the reading… yet still have serious questions about the poetry, the poet’s delivery and voice. Can’t answer those kinds of questions on the way out the door, and if you haven’t read the work or are only minimally familiar with the poet’s writing (assuming this is not spoken word, where the written page is to the reading what a musical score is to a performance), there’s no way to fairly judge or understand it. What’s left to say?
I was thinking about this last night after the Philadelphia New Poets reading at Fergie’s Pub with Marion Bell, Laura Sims and Joseph Massey. I was broke and didn’t want to hang around watching other people drinking beer, so put on my coat when the reading was over and began to sidle my through the crowd toward the door. Greeted Frank Sherlock as I passed…
What'd you think? he asked.
Would have been enough to say I’d enjoyed it—which I did, but something about Joe Massey’s poems—and his reading—that had troubled me, and I foundered for words, some way to sum up my reaction—but hadn’t had time to think about it, and there was Joe coming up behind Frank and I felt like an ass cause I was afraid that whatever would have come out was going to sound too personal, too dismissive. Just wasn’t the place. If I was going to say anything less than “really liked your stuff,” he had more than earned the right to hear something with a measure of thought behind it—which was more than I could come with on the spot.
Maybe if I’d had time to relax, have a glass of wine, talk about this and that—the words and thoughts would have come together, maybe not. As I sat on the Broad Street subway, the question began to take shape—about how the think about the reading itself—any reading.
Hearing a poet whose work I’ve read and thought about presents no problem. I’ve internalized some of my response; the spoken reading, with poets who are at least moderately competent at voicing their work, offers a new way to hear and interpret it, something to compare and inform my thinking and judgment. How did the performance help or detract from the poems? But with a previously unknown poet, or one whose work is only passingly familiar to me, it gets more complicated. Since that’s mostly the case for me; I go to readings as much to discover new voices, to hear poets I’ve not had the chance to read, perhaps never heard of--as I do to add levels of appreciation for those I know, .
Complicated, because poetry worth the time demands more than a single reading, and when you hear a poem without experiencing it on the page, the visual arrangement of lines and spaces, without the voice of the poem coming alive in your own mind—there’s only so much you can say with any justice or sense of fairness to the poet.
All that said, some readings are better than others. Maybe it’s worth having a go at a review, keeping in mind, always—that without a deep relationship to the poetry in question, one’s response is going to be personal, mostly subjective, and can't pretend to offer anything like a considered critical judgment of the poems themselves. Here then, are some notes I wrote in my journal when I got home—far briefer than this preamble. And dear poets—it’s my profound conviction that the true merit of your work likely far exceeds any too quickly conjured opinion offered here!
For additional general thoughts on vocal readings, Inhabiting a Poem
Marion Bell: has a way of pausing, turning her head to the left, taking a quick shallow breath—making me wonder if she is responding to something on the page that I can’t see—a part of the poem, or is this a minor personal tic? Either way, it becomes part of the reading—part of its spoken rhythm, noticeable without being distracting. The text of the backlit pages appears to be printed in blocks—like a prose poem. But this is not prose, nor prosaic. Chiasmic structures, internally and at beginning and end—marking a sound equivalent of stanzas (as do the pauses, though they seem to come mid-‘stanza’.. an effect like a mid-line caesura). Uses repetition—relocating words phrases in changing contexts, demanding continual reinterpretation and layering of associations. I found myself very interested in the what and how of her poems and look forward to reading her work for myself.
Laura Sims: … need to see and read on page. Dense and layered associations, flowed past more quickly than could follow as I listened. Her reading voice is clear and precise—closely following the lines and typographical rhythms. Strong aural quality. Employs repetition as musical element, in places reducing words to pure sound and rhythm
In a body
In a body
The last, coming more as breath than spoken word. Called to mind how Ursula Rucker uses vocalized breath, like a chant, like a black preacher on a roll, like percussion, to punctuate, link and propel phrases from one unit to the next.
Her poems demand reading on a page. When I have the chance to see them, her vocalization will remain with me.
Joe Massey: Finely crafted poems. Employs—with great skill—traditional devices: alliteration, internal and slant rhymes. Visions of semi-urban landscapes, intersections of natural and human scenes. Images… brought to mind a book of black and white photographs: empty lots, vacant buildings, leafless winter trees under winter skies. Close ups. Miniatures. Each a kind of outdoor still life. Vocabulary, exquisitely precise. Diction—relaxed, not quite colloquial. Everything under control. Physicallity of things. If there were direct representation of human presence, I missed it. Deserted, as though post-apocalyptic. I found his vocalization painful… a kind of unvarying monotone… monochromatic. Is this what brought to mind black and white photos? Uncomfortable too with the very precision and control—a too impressive control of language which, too my ear, left no room for doubt, no rent in the semblance, no point of entry to question the seeming transparency, identity of sign and referent… “this is really how it is. How it was. How it looks,” they seemed to say. “Believe this!”
My own preferences, my tastes--a deep mistrust of words impelled me to resist. The invitation was there--to dissect and examine the artifice—but closed to questioning the implied representative transparency. This is what I was fumbling to say to Frank as I left, and to Debrah Morkun outside on the sidewalk as I passed.
I will read Joe’s poems, and trust when I do, I will find that my doubts were groundless.
*Marion... I couldn't find a web page to link to your name. If you have one, let me know and I'll add it.
You can find links to MP3 recordings of the readings at Gregory Bems, The Stale (warning --no fault of the STALE, the sound quality is not good)
For another post on the reading voice:Dreaded Poet Voice