My top three favorite poetry readings, like, ever! (Part II)
So my second favorite poetry reading is one I never would have predicted: Clayton Eshleman reading the entirety of his translation of Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. There was a reading series in the late ’90s held in a gallery in New York City at the corner of Broadway and Houston that was dedicated to a single poet reading from her or his work for an hour or more. The series lasted for a couple years, although I can’t remember who ran it, and the only other poet I recall reading in it was Bernadette Mayer.
I think it used to be common for poets to read this long, and certainly novelists sometimes do. For myself, 20 minutes is just right. Anyway, before Eshleman’s reading I made the mistake of having a couple beers with friends who at the time were co-founders/organizers of the 16 Beaver space/collective in lower Manhattan. One of them, Scott Speh, was the first interesting blogger I ever read, although they were more like regular posts to his website than blog entries. Called “Hot Commodities,” these posts ostensibly covered the art world, but ranged from pop music to opinions on various kinds of drinks. They were smart and funny, and Speh has since gone on to run a great art gallery in Chicago called Western Exhibitions (Chicago peeps, check him out). The other two people there were Colin Beatty and Carrie Lambert-Beatty, who moved to Chicago for grad school, and now Lambert-Beatty is a rising star art-history professor at Harvard. In the meantime, the 16 Beaver space was wrestled away from them in a nasty personal/financial struggle that someone more knowledgeable—and less partial—than I could write about.
Speh had an office near the reading, which is where I ended up having a couple beers. Beer tends to make me feel sleepy and bloated (Absolute Citron and soda is my drink of choice, which says something about me and/or my blood sugar sensitivities), which is why it seemed to be a mistake to drink beer before an hour-plus-long poetry reading. But in fact Eshleman’s reading was incredible. He read impeccably and powerfully; he read dramatically though not performatively; he gave weight and import to every syllable without being ponderous or lugubrious. I don’t remember him stumbling over a single word during the course of the entire hour or more. It proved to me how a reading can be a performance without being a performance (particularly cheering to us non-performative types). I was never bored or distracted, and how many of us get momentarily bored or distracted during even a brief poetry reading?
My third most memorable reading is trickier, and a bit hazy, kind of like my third most memorable concert. I mentioned in an earlier blog entry that I’ve seen Anne Waldman read more than any other poet. Susan Howe was one of my teachers during my PhD run in Buffalo (1992–97), and became a personal friend; as a result I’ve seen her read many times as well. Either Waldman or Howe might have given my third favorite reading, but since I’ve seen each of them read so many times, it’s hard for me to pick out a single memorable one (although Howe’s reading with Kamau Brathwaite at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church last year was very, very good). I should also add Amiri Baraka’s name here. Similarly, I’ve seen a few amazing Godspeed You! Black Emperor shows, and two brilliant Tony Allen concerts at New York City’s Knitting Factory, and any of these might count as my third favorite concert, but I’m sticking with Kahil El’Zabar Ritual Trio for now.
Before I list my third favorite reading, I’d like to make a brief note on context and venue. Just as the Butthole Surfers' Location Abortion Technician tour didn’t translate well to a larger venue when I saw it the following year, so too are poetry readings context-dependent. For instance, I saw countless readings in Buffalo as part of the Poetics Program’s Wednesdays @ 4 series. There were many interesting poets invited (though usually from the Language Poetry end of the spectrum), and I’m sure some of them gave brilliant readings. But because many of these readings were held at 4 o’clock in the afternoon in the quiet and sleepy Rare Books Room, far from the city and even the rest of campus life (the readings were later held in an auditorium in the fine arts building), and because people frequently attended these readings after spending the afternoon in graduate seminars, the readings often had a staid, academic feel to them. This isn’t a critique of the readers themselves, but a comment on how context and audience—always—play a role.
This means that my third favorite reading is Bobbie Louise Hawkins at Naropa University. I don’t know when. Sometime in the mid-’90s, I guess. I think it was part of the summer writing program, though I can’t be positive. Hawkins is a natural performer and storyteller who understands that language is never subservient to narrative and character. She’s also a rich repository of a cultural history increasingly less told. At this particularly reading, Hawkins read stories, short prose pieces, and was accompanied on guitar by a Naropa student named John Wright. In particular, Hawkins half sang, half inflected a version of Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya” that I’ll never forget. Like Brathwaite and Eshleman, she expanded my idea of what poetry can be and strive toward, and that’s one aspect of a good poetry reading. Poetry, like any aesthetic-critical endeavor, shouldn't confirm what we know or who we are.
I encourage readers of Harriet who’ve made it this far to comment below on their own favorite reading(s). Along with expanding my list, it might help me remember a reading or poet I’ve carelessly overlooked.
Alan Gilbert is the author of the poetry collections The Treatment of Monuments (2012) and Late in the Antenna Fields (2011). He has earned praise for his ability to move between personal, national, and global scales and experiences in his wide-ranging, politically and ethically astute poetry. He is the author...