Monday, March 29, 2010

Are You Taught to Read Like That?

47º ~ pure blue and the sun making its way into the world

A few weeks ago, I spoke to and read for Lyndsey Daniel's Intro to Poetry class at the University of Arkansas Community College - Morrilton. When sending me my great thank you gift of a journal inscribed with personal notes from the class, Lyndsey also included some questions the students didn't have time to ask, and as time permits, I'm going to tackle them here.

Joanne asks: Are you taught to read like that? (like poetry style)

This question made me smile and think about what can be a very contentious topic for some poets today. To answer Joanne, I'm going to have to "go round by Laura's house" (as my father-in-law says when my mother-in-law tells an anecdote).

I experienced my coming-of-age as a poet in the late 80's and early 90's while I was an undergrad at the College of St. Benedict. We were lucky to have many great writers come and visit our small campus in central Minnesota, but the ones who stick out in my mind today are: Joy Harjo and Li-Young Lee. We were also lucky to have an extensive collection of videotapes of readings (yes, this was back in the day of VHS, dear Reader), and the one that I remember most from these is Quincy Troupe. I mention this because I had not heard a live poetry reading until this time. While my high school English teachers were phenomenal, we read mostly DWG's (dead white guys) with some Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath (Dead White Women). All of our reading took place either silently or aloud, but with stumbling and stuttering as high school students often do when uncomfortable with their material. The teachers dramatized their readings to keep our interest.

So, as an undergrad, I heard poets read their poems for the first time, and all three of the ones I've named above, read in a performance style, not slam poetry or spoken word per se, but clearly reveling in the sounds of words and accenting line breaks. In part, this is what made me fall in love with poetry as a form, and I too adopted this style. (Interesting, I just noticed that all three people I mention above are non-white poets...not sure how much that comes into play with the discussion, but it intrigues me. The oral tradition seems to have been kept alive in all three cultures, native American, Asian-American, and African-American, in ways it hasn't for Euro-centric Americans.)

As many of you know, I took six years off between my undergrad days and graduate school. In that time I both lost and found poetry many times; however, I didn't attend many readings, and I continued to read my own work aloud (to myself) in more than just straight reading off the page. I'm not sure there is a word for this, but I separate the way prose is read from poetry. I do not mean it has to be highly dramatic, but I do think there should be a closer attention to the sounds of words and lines...that is after all one of the key demarcations between the forms, no?

In any case, I arrived at the U of Arkansas excited about my first workshop. At the end of the workshop, the instructor castigated both myself and another female poet for reading in this "poetic style." Apparently, the fashion of poetry reading by the late 90's and early 00's had become a flat style, simply reading the lines off the page in prose-like fashion. I must admit, dear Reader, that I left that workshop and cried. This instructor had crushed one of the things I loved about poetry. It took me a long time to have the confidence to read my work out loud again, even though I had to read every line I wrote in workshop on a bi-weekly basis.

After struggling through grad school and trying to find my voice both on the page and during readings, I think I'm finally closer to the answers. I still read in a "poetry style," as Joanne mentions, and I'm proud of it. However, I do try to moderate my leanings toward the completely musical. I hope I've struck a happy medium.

You all can be the judge soon. Watch for my announcement for when the new issue of goes live (this Wednesday or Thursday). I've got two poems there with my most recent recordings of my reading style. Let me know what you think!

Thanks so much for the question, Joanne. Hope the class will watch this space for more answers soon. You all were a truly wonderful audience.


Erin said...

Yay! I have two coming out for Terrain as well - with recordings as well. I'll listen to yours and comment if you listen to mine!

Sandy Longhorn said...

E. It's a deal!