In an irreverent piece written for The New Yorker in 2012, “Thank You Thank You,” Donald Hall claims, “Late in the fifties, poetry readings erupted in the United States suddenly and numerously. Probably it was because of Dylan Thomas’s readings, though there was a gap before the volcano exploded.” He goes on to theorize, “Maybe the explosion of readings was also because of a cultural change. Songs were no longer Tin Pan Alley, and the lyrics were worth heeding. When everyone listened to Bob Dylan, they heard lines that resembled poetry. When people heard memorable language sung from platforms, they became able to hear poems recited in auditoriums.”
Since then, poets are extroverts, too. Or at least they have to feign.
I grew up as a poet in a culture where poetry readings were de rigueur, and they remain so today, even though the pressures of reduced funding for literary events at universities and in public spaces are real and tangibly impactful. I grew to love poetry, in part because I was lucky enough to have heard a number of wonderful readers of their own work hold forth during my undergraduate years. Galway Kinnell—in a white tennis outfit—recited poems like “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World” by heart for Dan Masterson’s community college poetry workshop. That man could have read the phonebook and held an audience. As a student at SUNY Brockport, I heard Seamus Heaney read for the first time, and his musical words recited in that brogue were as intoxicating as the whisky he sipped from a Styrofoam cup behind the podium. And I remember one of my teachers, William Heyen, reading from his Holocaust poems at a gathering for a Jewish student group. He read before a roaring fireplace, and I was transported in ways I’d never been before.
And so it went through graduate school and beyond. I’ve made lifelong friends at poetry readings. I think it was around 2001 or so when I went to a Cave Canem reading at the New School in New York City to hear my friend Shara McCallum. After Shara’s wonderful, as always, reading, a poet I’d not heard of took the stage. She had just one book at that point. Her name is Natasha Trethewey. Later, Shara—at my eager insistence—introduced us and I was able to convince Natasha to let me publish, in its entirety, the 15-poem sequence, “Letters from Storyville,” that make up nearly all of section II of her second volume, Bellocq’s Ophelia. We’ve remained close ever since.
Naturally, as I became a public poet in my own right, I had to learn about how to give a reading. It requires a skill set totally different from the one needed to write poems, skills more closely associated with acting and public speaking than with writing. Page to stage. Don’t forget water because hosts often do. Hot mic? Popping Ps. A lot of hazards. I wasn’t so good at first, but I was lucky to have been able to put together a longish string of readings in support of my first book, and I learned a lot then—and as time went by—about how one can inhabit a poem and frame it. I mix in a bit—but not too much—patter and a mild joke or two. It’s manipulation and timing, just as in good writing, that makes a reading click. They don’t always click.
Hall recalls, “It used to be that one poet in each generation performed poems in public. In the twenties, it was Vachel Lindsay, who sometimes dropped to his knees in the middle of a poem. Then Robert Frost took over, and made his living largely on the road. He spoke well, his metre accommodating his natural sentences, and in between poems he made people laugh. At times, he played the chicken farmer, cute and countrified, eliciting coos of delight from an adoring audience.”
Beyond the stagecraft, though, is the way an audience—or some individuals in it—are pulled in and engaged in the manner I was as a young poet. It’s usually clear enough when the audience before you is largely made up of students who have been strong-armed into attending. It is always a challenge I enjoy, however, to identify that uneasy kid in the last row, baseball cap screwed on backwards, fingers furiously tapping on his cellphone until that last second—and often beyond—when the host asks that all cellphones be turned off and the introduction begins. Sometimes it’s a poem about fishing. Other times, one of my poems with the word “fuck” in it or that uses sex as a gateway to a meditative space. Or maybe it’s just a poem that hits home for him in a way I could not have anticipated. No matter; what’s important to note is that, more frequently than you might think, a student like that comes up afterwards to tell me some version of, “hey, thanks, that didn’t suck,” and for that small blessing I’m always grateful. Maybe he even buys a book and gets it signed.
“That didn’t suck.” There’s hope there.