Sasha Fletcher and Google-Eye Puppet (photo by Lily Ladweig)

Who: Leigh Stein, Sasha Fletcher, Kathleen Rooney & “Elisa Gabbert,” Jason Koo, Sommer Browning and Noah Eli Gordon, Martin Rock, and Jason Zuzga
What: Poets & Puppets II: the Resurrection
When: May 21, 2010
Where: Pete’s Candy Store, Brooklyn, New York

“Open Door” features audio, video, and online media to document dynamic interactions between poetry and its audience. “Open Door” showcases performance, scholarship, and engagement outside the usual boundaries of slams, workshops, and book publications. This week: Poets and Puppets at Pete's Candy Store.

Leigh Stein curates Poets and Puppets, an occasional reading series whose mission is to put “the best voices of contemporary poetry into tiny bodies.” Onstage at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn, she unfurls a triple-folded posterboard that resembles a science fair project. But Pete’s is actually a bar, not a candy store, and Stein’s posterboard is a backdrop: painted black and adorned with maps, with two small, circular flaps cut into it.

“A Good Unicorn is Hard to Find,” intones Stein from behind the cardboard, reading the title of one of her poems, and popping a brunette puppet with unruly hair through the top circle. The puppet recites, and when she gets to the line, “Let’s always dress our best, just in case we catch a unicorn on our way to the underworld,” it is clear that said unicorn is supposed to burst dramatically through the second flap. For a second, nothing happens. Then the performers and the audience alike break into laughter, until a gleaming white sock puppet with a yellow yarn mane and a golden horn emerges, looking chastened.

This missed cue is unintentional, but moments like these are exactly what Stein intends to have happen. “I am hoping to achieve fun. I am hoping to alleviate some self-seriousness,” she says later. “It's hard enough to read aloud, but try reading aloud while moving your hand in unison with your mouth, and you're bound to mess up, and the mess up is the part I like best.” And she’s right; there’s something generative and textured about these inevitable mess-ups. Later in the same poem, when the human puppet arrives at the line “The unicorns are ineffectual,” she shoots her fellow puppet—ineffectual at arriving on cue—a stern look, and the piece is that much richer.

After Stein and her assistants vacate the stage, Sasha Fletcher stands behind the mic, a sheaf of poems in his right hand and a wide-mouthed sock puppet with huge orange googly eyes over his left.

He opens by apologizing for forgetting his funny poems, but as he reads through his puppet mouthpiece, the audience becomes absorbed anyway, as does he, illustrating what Stein is talking about when she says, “Overall, I think the puppets alleviate self-consciousness in their puppeteers, in their readers.”

So too does Fletcher’s performance illustrate another of Stein’s observations that, “Definitively, it's an inanimate object that we animate, but sometimes I feel that the puppets have lives of their own. You can try and control them, but they do what they want, like mischievous children.”  The googly-eyed puppet periodically rises high into the air above Fletcher’s head throughout the set. It is just a tube of fabric held aloft by Fletcher’s arm, of course, but somehow it appears as though it is the one making the decision to levitate.

Stein has provided all the puppets so far from a large bag of assorted ones that she brought with her to Pete’s. But I’m up next, and I’ve chosen to read with a puppet that I’ve made myself with lace hair and pale disk eyes, meant to resemble my poetic collaborator Elisa Gabbert. Since Gabbert lives in Boston, Stein animates her puppet incarnation as we do a duet of co-written poems. I find myself relaxing into almost as much of a rapport with the miniature version of Gabbert as I have with the real one.

Following that, Jason Koo does a duet of his own with Raphael, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle puppet, which inspires him to incorporate many more pet turtle stories into his between-poem banter than he surely would have otherwise.


Jason Koo and the Ninja Puppet (Photo by Martin Seay)

Following a brief intermission, Sommer Browning—curator of the Multifarious Array Reading Series, which is playing host to this evening’s installation of Poets and Puppets—and Noah Eli Gordon open the show’s second half. They too eschew Stein’s generously offered sack of puppets in favor of a human marionette routine. Gordon makes a to-do of securing strings to Browning’s arms and legs, then stands above her, a puppeteer causing his life-sized puppet to play the guitar and sing with him.

It’s a tough act to follow, but Martin Rock acquits himself beautifully. He chooses to sit in a chair and read not just through his puppet, but almost to it, as though it’s story time at an elementary school.


Martin Rock and puppet (photo by Lily Ladweig)

The audience draws in closer to listen, for as Stein points out, this story-circle approach “mimics the scenario of reading to a child, and most people become their most charismatic, dramatic, secret selves when in front of children.”

Because of a traffic jam on his way into the city, Jason Zuzga, the last performer, almost didn’t make it. Still, when he finally arrived, he gamely popped on a puppet and read a short set to the remaining crowd who hadn’t already dispersed to the patio. His last-minute appearance was a gentle surprise, which, though unplanned, could not help but seem fitting. For whatever else Stein wants her project to achieve, above all, she hopes “to increase our chances of being surprised at a poetry reading.”

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and the author, most recently, of the memoir Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object and the essay collection For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs. Her first book of poetry, Oneiromance (an epithalamion) won the 2007 Gatewood Prize from Switchback Books.

(If you would like to pitch an “Open Door” feature concept, please email with “Open Door” in the subject line.)

Originally Published: July 7th, 2010
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Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...