Not Another Boring Poetry Reading

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Poet Neil Silberblatt, host of the fantastic reading series, Voices of Poetry, at a reading at the Cornelia Street Cafe in NYC.

No, it never ever has to be a boring reading, but I swear there are so many people, memories of school days in their heads, who cringe at the idea of listening to a poetry reading. As a reaction to that we have Spoken Word movements and poetry slams (I’ll post one or two of my favorites tomorrow). Although all of that might sound a little too much like street rap to the traditional ear, they have done great work at rescuing poetry from people’s memory of flat, dull readings.

My son, Micah, and I went to a poetry reading recently at a local university, known for its excellent creative writer’s program. The featured poet was an award-winning legend. She wasn’t young. If she ever had a robust voice, age had stolen that from her. But in the interest of the old building’s acoustics, the organizers decided not to give her a microphone.

Enormous, irreparable mistake. The old benches of this building, which must have once served as a university chapel, were like old wooden church pews, so as we leaned forward in a futile effort to hear the esteemed poet’s words, the entire bench creaked and groaned. Poor Micah, I turned to him with what must have been an incredulous look on my face and he could not stifle the giggles. That, of course, made everyone turn and stare at us. They were struggling to hear as much as we were, and were relieved that they could blame someone else, rather than the poet who seemed uninterested in looking up, or even trying to project her voice, despite the obviously dire circumstances.

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My son, Micah Bauman, doing a superb job reading with the Poetry Under the Paintings Group at the Lewisburg Arts Festival, Summer 2018.

I suspect our creaking and giggling also made it easier for the director of the MFA program and his staff to ignore my helpful suggestions later. You see, even the MFA students who read after had problems projecting. Less than half of them seemed able to or interested in presenting their work in an a way that the audience could hear, understand, and thereby take joy in. As for the director, I suppose it was easier for him to pretend that his students really didn’t need any instruction on public speaking. I say all of this because I made the mistake of trying to make a helpful suggestion or two later. Oops.

This now has me wondering; if you have taken an MFA course in poetry or creative writing, could you drop your thoughts into the comment box below? I know this sounds snide, but honestly it was a theft of our evening. Would an art exhibit set up a show in which the paintings, photographs, or statues were so far away from the viewers that nobody could appreciate their beauty? Do writing programs teach anything about presenting work in public? And if not, why do they bother doing it? Might they consider that by not spending at least a little time on the subject of public presentation, that they are actually doing harm to the public perception of their own chosen art as a whole?

Yes, I’m a bit passionately opinionated on this subject. We should not whisper or mumble our poems, (unless somehow—I’m really stretching my imagination and graciousness here, doing so would help to get the message across). Nobody goes to a concert or a play so that they can fail to hear the music or the actors’ dialogue. This public presentation is fun stuff, but it’s also a serious responsibility, to you, your art, and your listeners.

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Poet Dawn Leas, co-host, with Brian Fanelli, of another excellent reading series: The Writer’s Showcase at the Old Brick Theater in Scranton, PA.

As I have said in previous posts about poetry as a culturally relevant art form, even traditional verse can be read in a way that is delightful to the modern ear. Mathew MacFayden and The King Blues are good examples of people who know how to do it. Groups like Poetry Out Loud work to spread that spark to the younger generation. The work of Ken Nordine and Billy Collins attest to what video websites have done to present poetry in a contemporary context, capturing the fun of the art, and dispelling the fears of potential boredom.

I was telling a friend about some video readings, particularly one of a poem by Philip Larkin called “This Be the Verse,” that could be found on YouTube. And while I wish these folks would make some newer videos, the five that can be found on the I Blame Poetry channel are absolutely first class productions. I am envious. Here they are as I posted them back in December of 2010.

23 Comments Add yours

  1. Blü says:

    I want to like this post more than once. lol 🙂

    Like

    1. sonofwalt says:

      Oh, I love you for that, Blu. 🙂

      Like

  2. David,
    What a great collection of readings. I’ve now added another item to the list of things to do… I like the way these were filmed with mostly full face view. I’m big on the eyes and facial expression and I think it really added to the readings.
    I don’t think I’ll have a good a quality and won’t aim for the different positions / expressions etc. but I do think I’ll try a full faced reading one of these days.

    I appreciate all you do to help spread the poetry word!!!

    P.S. Driving to PA tomorrow (Harrisburg) for a meeting on Tuesday.

    Peace,

    Stephen

    Like

    1. sonofwalt says:

      Ooh! Harrisburg is only an hour or so south of me! We should meet up sometime!

      Like

    2. sonofwalt says:

      And I’m really glad you liked these, Stephen. Yes, there is something to putting a face to the reader that I enjoy, though some days I don’t feel like it’s a good day to put the face on camera. 🙂 I am looking forward to getting a better internet connection here on Tuesday, and plan on many more videos as a result.

      Like

  3. John says:

    Thanks for sharing these! I can understand why you wish there were more!

    My favorites are the Houseman, and, of course, Dorothy Parker, because what gay man can NOT like Parker.

    Like

    1. sonofwalt says:

      Haha, agreed. Have you ever heard her poem, “One Perfect Rose?” Check it out here: http://public.wsu.edu/~delahoyd/parker.rose.html

      Like

    2. John says:

      I do know that poem… I went through a Dorothy Parker phase when I was in my mid-20s. I have read most everything she’s written. I think I’ll have to rummage around my book boxes and find my Portable Dorothy Parker (I actually wrote Portable DP, but that seemed rather wrong…) 🙂

      Like

    3. sonofwalt says:

      I like the sound of Portable DP. 🙂

      Like

  4. keatsbabe says:

    As always, you find great ways to enthuse your readers. I am still trying to pluck up the courage to read to camera myself – when people do it so well I always think there is no need, frankly, to inflict myself upon the world!

    Like

    1. sonofwalt says:

      There are so many great ways to do it. There use to be two ladies online who would take turns reading a few lines in front of department stores, in coffee shops, or on vacation, reading a poem from that region, etc. They were not world class voices, but their enthusiasm and fun, even in the nervousness, made it worth watching. I shall have to look for their old videos.

      Like

  5. What a great start to my week! Thanks for sharing these 🙂

    I didn’t know the Parker poem, so that was a bonus.

    Like

    1. sonofwalt says:

      Yay, cool. It’s always fun to learn a new Dorothy Parker poem. I’m so glad you liked them!

      Like

  6. Oh these were fun! and as for not a good day to face the camera… surely every day is a good day for poetry to be read, and if not by faces that look like ours, then whose? I sort of like the notion of hair askew, eyes tired and verse ironic for the world. Let them hear poetry today and every day! (and these were wonderful)

    Like

    1. sonofwalt says:

      You know, girl, you make a damned good case. You’ve convinced me. I do have one that I called a bed head poetry reading. Maybe we need more of that. lol

      Like

  7. YES! Please give us your bed head poetry reading.

    We’re waiting.

    Like

    1. sonofwalt says:

      haha, I do have one already on YouTube. I had thought about building up a play list of them. . . Hmmm. . .

      Like

  8. Ian Moone says:

    I really enjoyed every one of the vid’s great stuff

    Like

  9. Jeremy Nathan Marks says:

    The Philip Larkin reading was just terrific! I laughed out loud at the end. 🙂

    Thank you for sharing.

    Like

    1. sonofwalt says:

      That’s my favorite too. Had the same effect on me.

      Like

    2. Jeremy Nathan Marks says:

      Cool.

      Like

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