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Kenneth’s (Goldsmith) recent blog about readings is a tad depressing. This is one instance when I know we must occupy different spaces in the world. I like readings. I like doing readings and I being an audience member at readings. There is probably one central reason why I like doing readings. Generally, the people who are there to hear me read are there to hear me read and this means that they care about the work they are going to hear. There is something affirming about this. A reading for me is locked into something quite old and elemental. I try to invoke a series of experiences that are rooted in my childhood.
In Accra, Ghana, at the Legon campus of the University of Ghana where we lived in a valley whose slopes were lined with white square cement and glass houses, my father would gather us around him in the ceramic tiled living room to watch him tinker around with a fairly elaborate electronic contraption. The year is 1967, the contraption is a cassette player—a chunky piece of equipment. He also has a reel-to-reel portable recorder with several piles of plastic reels wound about rightly with brown tape. He threads the recorder, plugs in the microphone and as it ticks around and around, he begins to read his poems into the microphone. We are as much enthralled by his poems as we are by the technology. And when he hits the play button, we are fascinated by the sound of his voice coming back to us, surrounding us, preserved. His readings were engaging. They represented a doorway into his past, into his history—a path to Jamaica where he grew up. His performances were about the family. He would pepper the readings with folks songs like “Jamaican Farewell”, and long recitations from memory of poems like the “Song of the Banana Man” by Evan Jones, his old friend from Oxford. My father knew that his voice resonated with power and authority. He would speak in a flawless Oxford accent, one that we would later imitate as children, not with bitterness or cynicism, but with the giddiness of children imitating their parents. These “readings” took us to a home that we had not seen. They conjured a sense of place and a time. They were a way for us to know this man. In a house that had no television (my father thought them a bad idea), this was splendid entertainment, and we enjoyed it.
In Ghana we found other distractions especially during the holidays. One of our favorite was a trip across the campus to an open planned bungalow near the outer extent of the campus. This place of wood panels, hardwood floors, brown stoned walls and thick hibiscus hedges was the school of African Studies or at least a performance arm of the school. I am not sure, but in the long hall, drummers would gather around an array of drums of all sizes, and dancers would leap into the open space and begin to move in patterns, sweating, smiling, laughing, while the singers would chant. Sometimes they would break into stories, and then fling themselves back to the dance. The cow bell would create a pattern that I would later recognize as the basis for much of Latin music, and the music of Pocomania in Jamaica. Sometimes the artists would let us play the instruments, encouraging us, teasing us. Here the telling of stories was about creating a sense of community, but also about teaching us something about who we were and about what we could sound like.
When I was about four years old, my uncle Teteh came to stay with us. He was my mother’s brother. A small man, he was the only boy in a family of women. We would go by his bungalow at night to have him tell us stories and entertain us. It seems now that what he enjoyed most was to recite poems and speeches from his days in English class as a young boy. He would orate with passion and conviction and we would listen, amazed at his recall and barely understanding the words. But we must have done this a lot, because soon we would be repeating the poems ourselves. Learning how remarkable a thing it is to be able to retain so many words. This is how I learned Mark Anthony’s speech from Julius Ceasar. This is how I learned phrases like “my unconquerable soul”, and “dark as a pit from pole to pole”:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud,
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
– William Ernest Henley
My uncle probably longed for us to remember the famous last lines, “I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul”, but while that did not stick, the early phrases did, and the meter of the work did as well. above all, the complex of ideas intoned in the dim light of his room would stay with me.
Years later, when asked to offer something to a night of entertainment, I would quote from Julius Ceasar, relying on the words that I hardly understood when I first learned them.
It is funny now to think about how much we sang, recited, told jokes, and repeated the stories of our childhood escapades in my home. My mother would recite “The Daffodils” and sing Irish ditties that she learned from the nuns who taught her in school. She quoted constantly from the Bible and would teach us songs in Ewe, Fanti and Twi. We learned the counting chants in Ga, and we would shout out all we learnt at the top of our voices. When my father taught us the “Internationale” he expected it to stick, and it did. He would have us mark time, swinging our arms and lifting our knees on the spot as we belted out:
So comrades, come rally,
And the last fight let us face.
Unites the human race.
So comrades, come rally,
And the last fight let us face.
Unites the human race.
When we lived in Oxford while my father was on sabbatical there, he taught us drinking songs, or songs that must have been sung as drinking songs when he was at university. A few years ago, I googled the words, trying to find out what these pieces that were stuck in my head were about, where they were from. I learned that “Green Grow the Rushes Oh” may have been a coded song of Catholics during Henry VIII’s reign. Who knows, but this, too, we sang with relish:
I’ll sing you one, oh;
Green grow the rushes, oh!
What is your one, oh?
One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so.
Green grow the rushes, oh!
Performance, then, was not for a stage, it was for our entertainment, and it was not offered as being good for us, just offered as being pleasurable and entertaining and a way for us to laugh and to be with each other. Of course they could have sent us to the books, told us to read the works for ourselves, but they understood that the sound of the words coming out of their mouths and our mouths, filled with the nuances of rhythm and sound were part of joy in the business of living and remembering.
In Jamaica, the national festival made a spectator sport of recitation, and on the children’s television show Ring Ding, child after child would step up in front of the camera and recite the poems of the host of the show, Miss Lou, a veritable folk institution in the country. Children recited speeches, poems by Caribbean poets and much else. None of this seemed odd to me even though I had never attended anything close to what we now refer to as readings.
When I was in high school, Hopkins was very difficult for me. I did not even understand sprung rhythm though I tried to write about. But my sisters taught me something important. They went to a different school—they were girls, after all, and most schools were segregated that way at the time. They were studying T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. A teacher may have told them that knowing passages of these works by heart would be helpful in the exams, but I think what they did came from some other place, from the rituals of performing that we had grown up with. They would prance around the house chanting: “At the still point of the turning world, neither flesh nor fleshless,” “Time present and time past/ are both perhaps present in time future”, and so on and so forth. I had to learn these lines without even seeing them written down. I knew the first lines of The Merchant of Venice before I had read the play, and when we watched it on television, I could join my father in mouthing sections of the piece out of familiarity. This pattern of learning lines and speak them aloud would save me when I came to study Hopkins. I learnt to read his poems aloud, to intone them with feeling and with relish. Soon a simple truth hit me—I could understand the poems better when I read them aloud. When I came to study Macbeth during the final year of high school, I locked in memory whole chunks of the play, passages that I still know by heart to this day. Meaning, pleasure and the appreciation of artistry all resulted from this business of not simply learning the lines, but speaking the lines aloud.
By the time I was an undergraduate at university, I knew the value of learning by heart a large chunk of Donne’s Holy Sonnets so I could prepare properly for the exams. But I learnt them mostly so I could understand them. The idea of reading poems aloud in front of an audience is not an odd one for me because I can’t imagine why one would not do it. More than that, I know that when I am reading, I am constantly reminding myself that at some level, I belong to a community that wants to share, at the same time, something that often one experiences in private.
Some years ago, I was visiting Jamaica after the publication of my second book of poems. To that point, I had not done a reading in Jamaica. I was visiting some church friends to work with a group on a play that they were rehearsing. I was asked to come by to help strengthen the play to give some hints about the script and the directorial choices being made. Since I was in Jamaica for a fairly short trip, my friends had decided to use that time to invite some folks over just to say hello and to have a small party. Soon there were a lot of people, most of whom had known me as a playwright and as a fellow member of the church. Few knew me as a poet, and few had any idea what I had written and published. Someone suggested that I read some poems. I panicked at the thought. I started to wonder why I should even have to read in such a setting. But soon I understood that this act was going to be one of the most intimate instances of our friendship, and it was to be a gesture as vulnerable and as affirming as any I would experience. My poems, you see, were going to offer them an update on what I thought, how I had changed and how I had remained the same. My poems, and their response, were going to teach me something about myself, and something about the meaning of growing up. Most of all, the reading was to be an act of community. Yes, they each could have taken the book and found me there, but this communal act, this act of sharing my imagination with a large group and a group that would respond to it, was its own thing, and this was something that reading the book on one’s own could not replicate.
I can’t imagine hating readings. It is true that some readings are badly organized and when the logistics are not in place the whole business can be infuriating. Sometimes we are reading to people who came to hear someone else, and that can be deflating, as well. But most of the time, a reading is an opportunity to do something that is about creating a space around the story, around the sharing of art, around the communion that can come when art is shared in this way. To do that, though, I have to be aware that I am reading. I am involved in the act of performing. I am trying to ensure that the work gets it just treatment. Poets who read because they have been told that this is how to get people top buy their books, and who believe that they should read with as dull and monotonous a tone as they can muster so that they do not give undue weight to performance, but full space for the poem on the page to shine, are really missing something that can happen at a reading. Here is the thing: folks will buy the work if they are engaged by the occasion of the reading. But for me, it is not only about the idea of performance, but significantly about the dynamic of community. I am trying to replicate the spirit of those memories of how I first encountered the spoken word everything time I face an audience. Keeping in mind the spirit of those memories has helped me to settle comfortably into the business of reading before an audience.