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The Reading

By Kwame Dawes

My suspicion is that most people reading this blog have attended a poetry reading and actually understand what happens there. But as a university professor I have the pleasure of introducing students to poetry readings for the first time. Many of them have never been to a reading and if they even know what happens, usually, they can’t understand the point. Hard to believe when readings are a part of your life. Yet no matter how often it happens, I remain surprised when someone musters up the courage to ask me rather sheepishly, “So what happens at readings?” At first I must seem incredulous, but when I attempt to explain, I begin to wonder about the very idea of readings: “Well. the writer,… well, the writer reads from their work… and… they read.” “So,” they offer, “we listen to someone read a book we could read ourselves—like elementary school?”

Put that way, a reading seems like the dullest waste of time. And my suspicion is that many people, including programmers of festivals and writers themselves, have serious doubts about the use of a reading. Many writers hate to read their work in public. They write to be read in the quiet of isolation. They know that they really have no great gifts as readers of any work, much less their own, and they regard the ritual of standing in front of people and simply reading work as a torture, a kind of punishment inflicted upon them by their publishers and their well-paid publicists.
But readings have a long and impressive tradition. A reading, simply put, can be immensely entertaining. I do confess that the challenge for a good reading is tougher for the prose writer than the poet. At least the poet is usually offering material in small packages–bits and pieces that are marked by pauses and opportunities for the reader to banter on about matters that have only a passing relevance to the poems. Some times the best part of those readings is the banter. A novelist can hardly banter. Many stand there, and read, slowly, these long passages that are rich with imagery and rhetorical value, but given a dull monotone of a speaker, the whole experience can be a pain. Yet one of the best readings I ever heard was done by an Irish novelist Colum McCann. I heard him read at the very well run and doggedly democratic Galway Writers Festival in Ireland. He read with a slow deliberate tone, pausing, relishing the moment, and sucking us into the bloody and emotionally painful world of rural Irish life. It was a tour de force. And there was so little banter. But what made his reading so enchanting? It should come as little surprise that it had to do with simple performance qualities. McCann assumed a tone and manner that allowed him to remain above the narrative, but that still gave him the space to possess his characters in the manner that a good actor does a character after a week of rehearsals. You see the actor’s mind working, and you hear the actor’s voice, but you also notice a tentative engagement with the character, a studied flirting with the possession that will come in full force later. A good reading helps us to see the writer and hear the writer, while pulling us into what the writer has imagined.
Actors, as it turns out, do not necessarily make good readers of poetry. This seems counter-intuitive, but there is something about the dynamic relationship between performance and personality that has to be achieved during a reading that goes against the actor’s art of totally immersing oneself into the “character” within the poem. The actor sometimes shows a faithfulness to the text and its drama in ways that are not always present in the best poems. Poems, in other words, are not plays, are not monologues, nor are they speeches. But poems are poems, and the reader has to give the poem the space to be an external expression of a mental process. This is why the best readings I have seen of poetry have been by the poets themselves. Kamau Brathwaite reading the Arrivants is a mesmerizing act. His cadence, his sense of timing, his rhythmic energy, his slow monotone when necessary, his fall into a whisper, his balancing of sonic values, and much more all give his readings the kind of dynamism that only the most gifted and intelligent actors can achieve.
For more than selfish and self-serving reasons, I think readings are very important things. Of course I rely on readings as a poet. The money I make from publishing my poems is absurdly little. My most recent royalty statement from Ohio University Press for my moderately successful collection, Midland, was for ninety-two dollars. Of course, seventy-two of that figure came from a permission fee by an anthology to reprint the book. So my pure royalties from sales came up to something like twenty dollars. Were I to rely on book sales as a poet, I would starve. But readings, now they are far more useful when one needs to earn a living as a writer. Festivals, colleges, universities, schools, libraries, community groups will pay a decent wage for a poet to come and reading his or her work to large and small audiences. Sometimes the audience will buy books after, but all poets know that those sales will not match the honorarium that they receive from the organizers of the reading. So yes, I rely on readings. I have a vested interest in readings. But I do them also, because I regard reading my poetry as part of the reason why I write my poetry. What I mean is that I write my poems to be read aloud. Of course, I understand that my poems will be read quietly as well, but I really write with a sense of the oral. Indeed, I can’t imagine a sensible poet of any value who does not believe in the oral force of a poem.
Here are places in the world where the very idea of trying to explain the value of a poetry reading or recital seems absurd. In those places, people grow up learning to recite poems, and they entertain themselves reciting poems and singing lyrics of poems and bantering ideas through the lines of poetry. I was recently struck while reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s remarkable autobiography, by how often he spoke of young men gathering to party and drink around the recital of poems by poets both living a dead. He spoke of having committed to memory thousands of lines of poetry, and about how much he relished reciting these great poems. Implicit in this amazing and enviable capacity for memorization is the understanding the poem, like the folk song or the popular song is a source of pleasure, reflection and intellectual stimulus. But it is also a form that is engaged with the idea of audience.
Much of what we speak of in technical terms about poetry has everything to do with the sound of the poem. And the sound is so crucial to a poem. The sound is where the music lies and the music lies in the way the poet uses language to create a sound or a series of sounds. In so many traditions the song and the poem are seen as one and the say and the terms are used interchangeably. I am deeply suspicious of poets who claim to be uninterested in sound. It makes no sense to me. Some of the most basic elements of poetry refer to sound—alliteration, rhyme, meter, assonance, consonance, and so on. And others refer to the dynamics of sound and the performance of sounds–stanzas, caesuras, and the judicious use of punctuation. All of this to say that much of what we like to talk about in the best of poems could be understandably mistaken for stage directions for a performer of the poem. These elements of voice and tone are part of what shapes the way a poem arrives to its audience.
Which is why when I visited Dutch Fork High School here in Columbia where my wife is a Media Specialist (Librarian) a year or so ago to talk about metaphysical poetry, I found it necessary to “perform” Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” before even beginning to talk about its themes and general meaning. After I read the poem, I then asked the students what they sensed about its intentions from the manner in which I read—from the tone, the mood, the attitude. I discouraged them from telling me what the poem meant. As they identified tone, we then went to the sections that captured the tone and spoke about how the reading affected this. They admitted that they understood so much about the poem after hearing it read than they did simply reading it in their heads on the page. This makes tremendous sense, really. Marvell’s poem is fundamentally a grand pick up line—a rhetorical tour de force that has to be read allowed to be fully appreciated. Its musicality, its meter, its rhyme, its alliteration all work hand in hand with the absurdly outrageous hyperbole and the cut throat rakishness of its intentions.
Poetry readings can be a revelation. They can. There is something extremely valuable about the ritual of listening to words come from someone’s mouth, of capturing only part of meaning, but feeling all of tone and mood. There is something ritualistic about the dialogue between the poet—the oracle—and the audience—the congregants. But something that affects the cognitive forces in people is triggered at readings. My own children have been forced to attend so many readings that I have done over the years. They have now developed the capacity to listen even while reading the books they bring along with them that, truth be told, they sometimes find far more engaging than my verse. They have also developed the skill of making sense of the oral through the practice of listening to poetry read aloud and through the enriching practice of listening to “talk” radio programs like “Car Talk” and “Prairie Home Companion”. In other words, they have developed an ear for the spoken word divorced from all the crutches of visual cues that television, film and lively teachers have foisted on us. Readings are a peculiar events that lend themselves to a ritual encounter with art that can be transforming.
No doubt, as Patricia has helped us realize, some writers are horrendous readers of their own work. I think such writers ought to be banned! Of course I am joking, in part. The other part of me would say that when a writer agrees to read her work, she is making a contract with the audience that what will be done will be a performance. In as much as the poem on the page represents one kind of performance, the poem read represents another performance that is a crucial to the completion of the poem. In my experience, most people who attend their first reading are pleasantly surprised at how much they enjoy the experience. There is something wonderfully enriching about the human voice giving flesh to words written on a page. Yes, the poet should read, the poet should speak his or her words regardless of how well he or she does it. There is something sacred about that act of giving voice, and sometimes that is all that we want. It is this that makes us listen to even the dullest poets reading their work—we want to be in the presence of this act of beauty—words becoming sound, flesh, taking on a distinct energy that is necessary, always necessary.
I like to read. I mean this. I LIKE to read my work. I enjoy the experience, the chance to connect with people. When people tell me they enjoyed my reading, I often say, “I had a great time.” And I mean that fully. Even as the words are flowing from you, you start to experience the force of your words in ways that looking at them on the page cannot seem to replicate. Ten years ago, in a small hall in Swansea, Wales, I sat in front of about thirty people, most of them older people than I was, looking like the attendees to a Women’s Auxillary tea social to raise money for Missionaries in Swaziland. They were quiet, smiled politely as I was introduced. I stood in front of them and the only familiar face was that of Ghanaian poet, Fifi Annobil who I had just met a few minutes earlier. I began to read slowly, weighing each word, weighing the sounds I was making. I was not paying attention to my audience at first. I just wanted to get through the poems I had hastily selected. But as I read, calmly, relishing the music that was suggesting itself in my head, I could feel them responding, almost imperceptibly. They were smiling where I expected them to smile, breathing deeply where I thought they might, and make small throaty sounds at those moments when something ripped through the poem. I was discovering things in the poems I did not even know were there—strings of assonance, turns of phrase, metaphors that took me by surprise. Something about this dialogue with the audience was changing something in me, and I began to really enjoy the moment. I will never forget that night. Poetry connected across worlds, across cultures in a beautiful way. This is what a reading can do. This is what readings ought to do.
Tonight I will read in Harlem’s Hue Man Books with another genius performer, Amiri Baraka, and I will spend my time watching him let the magic of language carry him to the places that he knows how to get to on stage. I will try to take some people with me as well. That is the pleasure of doing these things.

Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, March 31st, 2007 by Kwame Dawes.