Poetry Readings: Inhabiting the Poem


From December, 2009

Thinking about what makes for a good reading—not so much poems written with performance in mind, but the poetry written to be seen, to be read from the page.

For a long time I was turned off by readings. I hated what I call the dreaded poet’s voice, that convention that dominated (and still does in some circles)–where every line ends in a rising inflection—a dull, utterly unnatural and unmusical Sing Song. It’s a style that makes every poem and every poet sound the same, no matter how different they might be on the page. Happily, t’s an affliction most Philly poets have abandoned. The lesson here is that there’s no set of rules, no one way to do it: homogenization is deadly. The enemy of poetry. Every poet—and every poem—deserves to be rendered in a way that gives the audience some sense of its unique, inner voice. In practical terms, what does that mean?

A poem exists on the page waiting to be delivered from silence—whether in solitude and heard only by the mind, read aloud to oneself, or presented before an audience. In that way it’s analogous to a musical score, and like musical notation, bringing it to life assumes a certain amount of knowledge and training–and I’m not thinking here about explication, interpretation, decoding—but about awakening the voice in our imagination, in the throat, on our tongue—and most important—in our breathing. This is a physical act—where inspiration has a real and literal meaning—giving the poem the breath of life, to body it forth.

We learn how to read—that is—to hear a poem–through all the poems we have read before and through those vocalizations we carry in memory, as we learn to sing by hearing others sing, as we first try out our own voice through what we have heard before, through the music that has found a home within us. But hearing the music and being able to bring it to life for others are different skills, different gifts. Here the analogy of poetry to music may be strained, though perhaps not so much as it might seem—not if we think of the musical score through the mind of a musician, for whom there is always more music latent in the notation than any or all performances can ever manifest. So too with the reading of a poem—and here the point to keep in mind is that the fullness of the poem, as of a song or symphony or tune in the hands of a jazz musician, has another side: that the reading or performance is never complete—that there is always more left behind, left out, and with the greatest performances, you know that, you sense it; an absence communicated by the very mastery of the interpretation—which by its perfection suggests its incompleteness… that there are yet other interpretations, other ways to perform the piece–a waiting fullness not communicated by mechanical virtuosity or from a struggling beginner. There you hear the failure… but nothing of the unrealized music.


Let me see if I can take this as a model. A good reading, a strong reading, leaves out more than it delivers. A strong reading is not measured alone by the ability of the reader to capture and move the audience, but also by what she is able to communicate of the deficit—to suggest what remains on the page, remains to be discovered in another reading—whether in silence or voiced. This is why I seldom find readings by actors satisfying; the way they tend to overdetermine a particular interpretation, their own idiosyncratic way of hearing the voice tends to smother alternate possibilities, caging the imagination rather than releasing it for the listener.

A good reading is not necessarily dramatic. Dylan Thomas, for all his vocal gifts and the power of his presence, made it virtually impossible to read, recite or hear his poems in any other voice but the one he used in performance and recordings. No writer, no artist owns their work once it’s completed and made public. The poem has a life that is greater than the poet, evoking associations, ideas, feelings that will be renewed and recreated for everyone who encounters it, and of a range and scope—if it’s a good poem–which the poet cannot possibly imagine or anticipate. A just reading, then—gives the audience a sense of how the poet hears the work, but also releases it to and for the listeners—it is not a display, but an invitation, a meeting.

There is a certain ineffable quality to the best reading. I think of how CA Conrad, for instance—inhabits the poems he reads, inhabits, but does not dominate. His style is his own, and entirely in sync with the poems. Inimitable. Unavailable as a convention one might borrow and pass around as a medium for homogenization. There’s not much one can say about how to do this—you know it when you hear it. But there are more purely mechanical aspects—skills that one can talk about and work on in timing and delivery. Too many poets stand in front of an audience as though they were reading to themselves—making too little effort to listen through the ears of their listeners; they may read too softly to be heard, or too rapidly, not giving you time to take in a line or phrase before the next. They may neglect the importance of the pause… rattling on and depriving the words of their surrounding silence. The physicality of language is important, you don’t want to lose the stutter and clack or ebb and flow—this is not about acting: this is speaking, articulating physical sounds. These are the kind of things that poets might benefit from working on together. Reading and listening to each other. Workshopping.

“How did this sound?” “Now you read my poem and I’ll read yours” “Here’s something I wanted to do… what do you think? “Am I loud enough?” “Reading too fast?”

For the love of our poetry… maybe we can help one another to make the experience of our readings as good as they can be—to take some of the care and energy we put into the writing, and put it into making ourselves even better as readers. Who knows… it might come to pass that we can attract more people to our readings than we thought possible–an audience made up of more that other poets, family and intimate friends!

Black Garlic Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Sauce and American Racism


There is just nowhere, it seems, where you aren’t going to stumble on something where you might never expect it–a recipe for a cake, like a bloody swollen thumb, an ‘innocent,’ in the sense of being almost certainly, unconscious, — simile–packed with some of the ugliest assumptions about black people, and white fear.

Last night I made garlic bread out of my not quite fresh baguette from Food not Bombs. This morning, I looked at what was left–and thought, French toast–pain perdu. Why not–tasting in my imagination… umm, savory garlic under the sweet syrup. This sound so good it must be a thing–so I Googled “garlic desserts,” and sure enough…

The one that caught my attention–black garlic chocolate cake with raspberries. Wow. Sounds FABULOUS! There was a little personal story on how the cook worked up the courage to try this–she had never used black garlic before, and the idea of sweets with garlic was new as well.
And there it was. Looking for a simile for the anxiety she felt about this. Like “walking down an unlit alley at 1 AM. In Detroit” she wrote.

And we all know, of course: Detroit = Black.

This, in a recipe for … um, chocolate cake. With garlic. Black garlic. Her unconscious must have been pounding at the door to looking for a crack to leak this one out.

I had been ready to link this article, and the recipe–it sounded so good–I love somewhat unusual combinations that keep making things to eat an endless adventure. But no…not with that line ticking away inside the cake. The assumption, so clear, that everyone who read this recipe would share, both the fear of dark alley’s in Detroit, and know, without thinking about it—without necessarily even consciously, think: Detroit/Black, and if confronted, would vigorously deny having the least taint of …

Didn’t someone somewhere say something about “the unexamined life?” Maybe he was thinking, not about the person whose life was unexamined, when he said, that life would not be worth living: how our unexamined assumptions, when they become a part of the social fabric… make lives miserable for so many others. And if this is what our unexamined life does to others, what is our life truly worth?

Maddie Crum reviews Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island


Satin Island
by Tom McCarthy
Knopf, $24.00
Published Feb. 17, 2015

“Last year Tom McCarthy wrote thoughtfully and passionately against the merits of Realism — that is, the mode of writing that prefers to describe events straightforwardly, under the pretense that such a style conveys truth more accurately than, say, stories about magicians or time travel. He dismisses the latest crop of Realists lauded by critics, namely Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle is said to weave the epic and the quotidian together in the space of a single paragraph. Instead, McCarthy praises writers such as William S. Burroughs, whose photography keenly shows the approach he takes in his writing. Burroughs cuts up photos of city streets and reassembles them, forming fragmented images and explaining, “Consciousness is a cut-up; life is a cut-up.”

Read her review on the Huffington Post.

Sir, The Eagle Has Landed


  • But It Speaks German
  • Not Russian or Italian
  • Seems Germany is conquering Europe
  • This time, not violently
  • Its Blitzkrieg is executed economically
  • Using the Euro, not the Mark
  • A shot to the brain, not the heart
  • Seems democracy is more vulnerable
  • To think tanks and banks
  • More than demolition from panzer tanks
  • Plotting and planning, damn the yanks
  • More devastated by corruption
  • Than Big Berthas and Krupp guns
  • General’ed by this un-elected invasion
  • Democratically appearing persuasion
  • By those selected, to profit
  • From death, debt, drugs and disease
  • Once down, you pay interest by pleading please
  • Groveling on your stomachs, tall on your knees
  • You are free, never released
  • You owe until Time is deceased
  • Relief is seeing your woes increased
  • Germany, the unseen, digital enemy
  • This televised demolition
  • The citizenry destroying their own country
  • Fighting an invisible enemy
  • Whose ideology, take more, when nothing’s left
  • Or by foreclosure, legal theft

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#195 #196 #200 by Willard

Thinking again about Joseph Cornell’s boxes and my assemblages–especially the ones where I used window frames–mine are, with one exception, always looking out from a confined, ambiguous space, while the viewer/voyeur looks into Cornells’ nexted boxes. My dreams are often like that–I will be in a buiding of hallways and winding stairs searching for a way out, or climbing a hill or dune trying to make it an open body of water that seems to recede in the distance as I advance.

#195 From the Window Once in Fields Rose the Earth

#195   When Once from Fields Rose the Earth 61c63cm. roofing paper, red string, acrylic on cardboard, bathroom window frame


#196 Imaginary Landscap. 57x72cm Acrylic on composition board


#200 66x61cm Acrylic on composition board (lost in the Ox

Orphans in the Storm


Journal, February 17, 2015
I should go retire soon. Up early tomorrow, figure drawing at Fleisher’s. One of those days when I don’t want to let go. That feeling that I haven’t done enough. That the day isn’t finished–but I’ve run out of time and too tired to do anything more. Read till I get sleepy? The best I can manage.
I got in drawing time. I finished a painting. Finished readiing a book Went shopping. Posted on my blog… why does it feel like, not enough? Not enough. Not enough. Never enough?
It comes back to me… a young child, wanting to go on playing even when I was falling asleep on my feet. Only now I’m not particularly sleepy–but I think it comes from the same place. Playing… but what is the power of that play?
It’s been a long time since I’ve taken as much pleasure in a book as I did with Josipovici’s Hotel Andromeda. I feel such a kinship with Joseph Cornell–though I share little of his traumatic alienation. It’s the way Josipovici, through Helena, speaks of how he made his boxes—it touches me so.
Makes me think again, another dimension of what it means to be ‘recognized.’ One makes art out of oneself—to please oneself—and no one else. There’s no other way to do it, not and stay honest. But there’s an emptiness at the end that’s inescapable. What one makes as an artist–once completed, as much as that ever happens, no longer belongs to you. An artist is a person is compelled–obsessed would not be too strong a work–with creating orphans.
There was that, too, in Josipovici’s novel, wasn’t there? How did he get so many layers, so right? The orphans in Chechnya, who Helena’s sister was committed to caring for–an impossible task. Survivors of such trauma–they were feral, wild things. Untamable and violent. Who would ever want them? Accept them for what they are. So like the work of the artist, Joseph Cornell, she reflected. So like us all.
Found things. Take them up, put them together, because no one else will. And then—let them go. To be lost again. But bearing your imprint… indecipherable code inscribed.
Who will ever know how to read it?