Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Poetry Out Loud

"The spoken word" and "performance poetry" have certainly gained a higher cultural profile in the last decade or so; that is good news. Alongside of that development, traditional poetry readings seem to have flourished again as well. By traditional I just mean reading poems-in-print out loud, as opposed to performing poetry written more or less for the stage.

However, I think people in general and even student and faculty on campuses in particular are a bit reticent about poetry readings, viewing them as effete, perhaps, or potentially boring. If and when those unfamiliar with readings attend, however, they are usually pleasantly surprised. So are those who read poetry aloud to an audience for the first time.

Yesterday a few of us gathered to celebrate National Poetry Month by reading some of our favorite African American poems. About 15 people showed up, and we all took a turn reading one or two poems. As I told the group, any time there's more than 2 people at a poetry reading, it's a success.

I noticed that there was a calming effect on those listening--not calm as in sleeping, but calm as in attentive but re-composed after a harried day. I wonder if people's stress-levels, physically, are lowered at readings, in fact. I'm sure they're raised again once the person has to get up and read, even to a small audience.

The choices were great: a poem about a father, African American, who had served in the air force (or army air corps) in World War II--when the corps was still segretated. A poem by Etheridge Knight, who spent some time in prison, about photos and memories of his family--the photos pinned to his cell-wall. A poem by Audre Lorde about how all of get silenced but must find a way to keep speaking. A poem by Countee Cullen about poetry. A poem by Frances Harper about a slave-mother and one by Alice Walker paying tribute to African American mothers and mothers in general. One by Ruth Forman, and one by Langston Hughes: "Ballad of the Landlord," read by a student who has had some landlord-problems this year. I read "America" by Claude McKay and "Frederick Douglass" by Robert Hayden.

Of course, the usual poetry reading features one poet reading his or her work to an audience (I gave one of those this week), but I'm quite fond of readings at which people read the work of others, including, perhaps, some so-called established poets. There's something at once more informal and more communal about such readings. We're going to try to do more of that kind of reading next year.

Also I found out yesterday that my colleague Bill Kupinse, a fine poet (I've posted a couple of his poems here) was a) named poet laureate of Tacoma and b) in connection with that honor, "opened" for poet Billy Collins last week at a big reading in Tacoma. This is the best news I've heard in quite some time. Coincidentally, I visited Bill's poetry class yesterday, and there was much out-loud reading in there--of students' own poems and drafts, and of poems by David Wagoner. Bill happens to be a great teacher of poetry, too--very discerning in his comments about students' poetry, extremely knowledgeable about a huge range of poetry.

--Poetry out loud, often and everywhere these days, it seems: What's not to like about that?
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