On Readings: You Can Pick a Whole Way Your Body Scoops the Poem Out
Burritos for one day are often best left unexplored the next. One day I was hiking in the woods near Big Sur, and the person I was with wanted to lie down in some flowers, which was great. Except that morning I’d eaten a burrito from the day before, and it felt like all my flowers wanted to lie somewhere outside of me. Later that night I threw up into a motel toilet in San Luis Obispo. Before that, I shit myself a little in the driver’s seat of our rental car. All the adobe on the motel roof got better the longer the sun went. That was the closest it came to a body.
To leave the cluttered shadows of the redwoods and emerge immediately along the cliffs of PCH-1 (southwest of the Standish-Hickey State Recreation area if you’re keeping score, put it in your GPS, triangulate your satellites, interstellar bodies) is to experience a transition of bodies so extreme it’s practically an idea. A little bit of shit—even in the midst of itself, embarrassingly so—is mysteriously hilarious in a way that a large amount has trouble achieving.
We stopped to goof photos with statues of dinosaur bodies. On the high of a cheesy calm, I said I would drive. It was pretty scary. Going south means the outside edge of the cliffs. I’m not a confident driver. My anxiety is like this: “Where does your body think it’s going? What does your body think it’s doing? Does your body have the newest list of all the shit that could go down? Here, let me upload it.” To find some easement, we put on NPR. They were having a show about death. Somewhere in a studio, they were laughing in awe at the mysterious conditions a body can become. You know, that NPR-ish mmm-isn’t-life-a-grand-smell-of-fresh-banana-bread sort of take on things. Keep in mind, this was all before the burrito. Memories keep their own calendars. I drove very slowly. Let people pass. My glasses had an old prescription.
Even just thinking about it, four-ish years later, starts my body to a shake. But all I’ve had to eat today is some granola and almond milk, so that is maybe part of it. Last night, I ate a reheated burrito, and so far I’ve been fine, so maybe that chapter of my body was never really a chapter at all.
One question I know only needs to be asked rhetorically for the sake of this transition is: what do bodies, tiny amounts of shit, dinosaurs, burritos, cliffs, and old eyeglasses have to do with poetry readings? Ignoring the obvious connections I’m sure we already feel, here’s where we go next. We’ve talked about readings in general, which was a bit of a false start because I left a lot of things out. So in the next post I apologized for leaving things out and examined some broader histories of poetry readings and their cultural goals and significances. Now I would like to zoom in and talk about “giving” a “reading,” while keeping in mind that breadth.
What does it mean to give a reading? It means bodies, I think. I think it’s best to start at a body’s limits. Its cliffs of shit. Its radio show about death. Feel free to skip that last sentence if you are like “But I love crowds. I’m not me until the crowd is staring.”
A crowd is a good place to start when we’re talking about our bodies giving readings. After all, the reader’s breath is not the only color of the room. Your body ain’t the only rider. You go “up there,” so to speak, and you’re not really up anywhere. You’re still among. That’s a good place to start. Whether it’s a living room or a fancy stage light situation.
In a later installment, we’ll talk about being in an audience, but is the word audience even the right word? Like here is the poet, there is the poem, now comes an audience? From what I’ve seen and heard, when things are really working well, it doesn’t work like that. At a well-thickened poetry slam, for example, audiences hoot and snap. That’s in the poem now. You can be quiet, you can call-and-respond, you can murmur or laugh. That’s in the poem now. Whatever they do, the people listening aren’t a rock garden. They’re not surfaces. They’re in the poem now. They always were. You and the poem and the audience are a “yes and.”
Going “up there” to the mic or whatever to “read” your poem isn’t really going anywhere. (Stand the same distance from a mic you would from a good friend you’ll never sleep with, I think? If you can’t make out the eye color of the person farthest back, you probably need a mic, I think? Even if you can’t, mics are fun. Do anything with the mic except talk about it, I think). Any silence you might get while you are “reading” is about as “silent” as a large ocean beneath a tall cliff. If there is a stranger looking at you very intensely while you are “up there,” it will help your reading immensely if you say hello immediately and specifically.
Before your body and your poems at a reading, it’s good to remember that no matter how good or bad you think your poems are, the other people in the room are more complicated than your poems. They are mysterious and unknowable. They don’t want you to fail because they have no idea who you are, even if you’re their friend. In fact, forget you’re friends with any of them. Notice an interesting pipe on the ceiling. Do a sudden remember-noticing of something that brought you here, somewhere way back on the drive, somewhere in the midst of your identity. Now do that noticing out loud. It’s in your poem now. Storytellers in tribes, spoken oral art to tribal memory. Bring the room down until it’s all the room. You’re not up anywhere. The room is more complicated than you and your poems. It’s in your poems now. How can you be scared of saying and doing your poems when everything is so complicated?
But don’t take my word for it. Let’s study the bodies of poetry readers. The being in themselves they go about. First I was thinking we’d go through in modules, like feet, legs, torso, neck, eyes, breath, hands. But then I realized that’s not how bodies work. It’s not how poems work either. Can you really read “one line” better than “another line?” Obviously you can in the punch line sense, but beyond that? I’m not sure. Is a line in a room of breath a single surface any more than a person listening is? Watch what happens when LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs invites some people to participate in her reading:
First somebody says “Bring it,” which is not what they say when they would like you to bring a cake to their house and then have all their friends silently stare at the cake. Then Diggs talks about getting bored of herself. She talks about Butch Moriss’s theory of conduction. Right now you should be thinking “Mike, I already watched the video through to about the 47:40 mark, stop summarizing it.” Great, good work. Time for a short self-assesment about what you learned about poetry readings from Diggs’s collaborative performance:
1) Now where does your sound go?
2) What is projecting?
3) When does the poem say you can stop?
4) Why is anything embarrassing?
5) If I looked at you, you’d go ______.
Congratulations! You have learned everything you need to know about “reading poetry.” Thank you LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs. Let’s re-learn everything we need to know from other people now. Like Jamaal Versiz May:
What do we learn from May? Your body can be nervous and confident at the same time. You can pick a part of your body to move along one axis—like tilting forward and back at the knees—and another part for another axis. The line can travel through the wrist, for example. What part of your body matches the length of your line? Move that part. Are you good at cooking, flirting, hammering? Use those moves. You can go faster than you think you should if your mouth shapes are deliberate.
I love the way May’s “late” goes up in the air. That’s bold, thinking of late as above us. When May gets quick and says “graham crackers bitten into the shape of mountains” quickly, it doesn’t make it any less great of an image. It’s in the poem now, and the poem is moving along. Sometimes it slows down. Hey listen, here’s one thing May knows: if you’re gonna put the words “scalpel” and “bone” in your poem, they are in the goddamn poem now. Are you taking them out? No? Then make them sound how they did when they fell in. Every word sounds like itself, not the word next to it.
Hey listen, your body has a left to the left of it and a right to the right of it. There might even be people there. We can move the poem there too, maybe. Do you think you are bad at moving? You will never really know until you memorize your poem. (Here’s an interesting thing Mike Chasar wrote recently about memorizing poems). Do you hate moving because you want to climb inside the poem instead? Do you wish the poem was your body? Yeah, I’ve been there. Can we move there? How can we disappear fully and still bring the poem forth?
It was hard finding a video of Kate Greenstreet that really feels like being at a Kate Greenstreet reading. This isn’t the fault of the people doing the recording or Greenstreet or anything except maybe technology. But I found this Rabbit Light Movie with Greenstreet’s voice and moons and whatnot, and I realized part of what’s so great about Greenstreet is the way her face comes through in her voice. Lips smacking, sighs, crinkles, squints—you can hear the shapes being made. It seems to me the poem is crinkling into the face as it leaves it, a diffusion, like the poem is salting the face maybe. Which is a trick of perspective because it’s the face doing all the moving.
Greenstreet is so unafraid to be very quiet. It’s a quietness not of swallowing things back but of slowness and weight. Listen about the man with the hole in his throat who says “Hi, remember me?” This next thing you’re about to read might seem very weird, but Greenstreet also does this thing in her readings that I can only explain by alluding to the ending of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I know the movie is problematic in its evocative of shitty Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotypes, but all I really mean is the way Jim Carrey’s character says “OK” at 1:10 in this video (you have to watch the first minute for it to sound right because context):
That’s a tone I hear in private, but never in public speaking. Like imagine if Barack Obama used that tone in a speech. Pick a tone to sneak into your voice that Barack Obama would never use in a speech. Because it’s always picking isn’t it? It’s always a little gloriously fake? Faces and voices don’t really work this way, one in front of a bunch of others. Ham it up. When nature does something very fake-seeming, like a redwood forest exiting into a ridiculously beautiful cliff, it hams it up. Be that fake. (Of course the road is even faker, let’s not forget.) Some etymologists put the origin of the word “fake” as just a soupy getting at the Latin facere, which is just “to do.” I like what Trisha Low is doing in this poetry reading:
What I like about what Trisha Low is doing is that she going back into the poem even while she is inside the poem. “Saccrachine,” she says, and says it again, because that was good to say. “White bufffffaloooo?” Or “umm.” Or “The air is always traced by the difference of the other.” And there is a concept, a character, that Low has picked, sure. She’s picked a verb, maybe not one single verb you could name, but you can feel the verb, and if you’re a good audience member, you’re excited to see that verb wrung out. It’s not “reading” the reading she is doing. At the end of this blog post, we will talk more about picking a verb. First your hands can do spins but also become fingers. When you serve in tennis, one trick is to just wiggle your fingers loose before you grip, so you don’t grip too tight. This trick can be applied elsewhere is what I’m thinking. You can pretend you are explaining the poem to the air sometimes, but not to the people, because the people are smart and the air can’t blink.
Sometimes you get lucky and you used to be a dancer, like Kelli Stevens Kane:
Sometimes you get lucky and you are clutching some kind of golden stopwatch thing like Jackson Mac Low and you can just teeter the world of your poem on the Atlas of that golden stopwatch:
It’s OK to say Mike, I hate crowds. I didn’t get into this poetry thing for the crowds. I hate reading, I hate performing. I think it’s OK to say that because you can calm that fear by doing any of these secretly, like triumphantly secretly, like secretly pick one tiny part of your body to dance or secretly hold a fake golden stopwatch and don’t tell anybody. Your secret is in the poem now. Sometimes you can be the boss, like what Eileen Myles says about Dorothea Lasky in Rookie:
“Her poems run right up a hill right away by their very sound and they answer all those idiot questions. And she keeps running up that hill again and again. She runs up all of them. And listening and reading her is addictive. You really can’t hear her read her work without forever hearing that sound. And the sound uncannily is a little bit like being in school. Her voice is a female voice and it’s hard and strong and high pitched. It’s really in your face like a bossy teacher is.”
Is Lasky a boss? Of course she is, even in a kitchen in 2007:
Of course, Lasky doesn’t drive down cliffs, she flies planes:
“If you are flying an airplane and have upwards of 300 lives in your charge, then you better be confident, actually arrogant, that you can fly that plane. I think arrogance can breed a calm that gets a job done. It is wrong though too when arrogance makes people do the misguided thing (for example, start a war or lead a group of people down a bad path). Now I’m not really trying to compare the work of a surgeon or a pilot with the work of a poet. But there is a kind of arrogance, a kind of supreme power, that when infused with a little real humility and expertise, makes a poem. Because the poem is always about the speaker. Well, at least lyric poems are. And these are the poems I write. And actually, I kind of think all poems are lyric poems, no matter what their style or ideology. So, I think this power is always important.” (source: Bookslut)
I’m interested in the effect Lasky creates in her reading style because I don’t think her poems pretend to be the only poems in the room by exhausting the other poems or gobbling up all the poetic territory. What they do is they attempt to be the most immediately interesting and vivacious poems, and they shout out in such a way as to encourage all our potential vivaciousness, I think.
But Lasky and vivaciousness are more than being funny, I think. Bodies are always full of lightning. They can be angry, sad, and funny at the same time. If your poem is amazing, you might be Danez Smith. Watch Smith’s eyebrows and eyes:
The lines travel the length of his eyebrows and prop his eyes open, I think. If your poem doesn’t have lines in it that make your eyes want to go very very open, probably it won’t do that for the other people in the room either. It’s OK to let your eyes be as open as they were in the dark when you were staring at that line trying to figure out if it was the right line. Even if the line is just the word “I.” Also I’m sorry in advance if you can’t sing as well as Danez Smith.
Danez Smith has the same last name as Abe Smith, which is the transition in charge of this next part:
You can pick a whole way your body scoops the poem out. It’s just a little something coming out your body. It was there to begin with, don’t be afraid of it now. You can let the weight of whatever piece of the poem is the most weighty—the subject, the words, the sounds, all of it—tilt your shoulders. You can stomp the poem down into the ground once you’ve scooped it out, so you don’t start a brush fire. You can allow the poem to make you as weird in public as you were when you wrote the poem. There, I like that, I think I will copy and paste it. You can allow the poem to make you as weird in public as you were when you wrote the poem. You can allow the poem to make you as weird in public as you were when you wrote the poem. You can allow the poem to make you as weird in public as you were when you wrote the poem.
Please don’t worry the rest of this series is going to be this unpractical. There are plenty of toast and butter questions to consider. How do I host a reading? What do I do after a reading if I didn’t like it? How do I ask somebody to throw a reading for me and my friends? If a traveling poet is sleeping at my house, how many blankets should I put in their mouth so they can’t escape the attic and sit on my fish?
We’ll ruffle all these questions and more, but I wanted to start with the least practical part of poetry readings: the actual reading itself. Or performance, or intonation, or recitation, or summoning, or reckoning, or slamming, or huffing, or whatever else it might be. Before you do a reading, pick one verb for what you will do that isn’t “reading.” Try to make it a verb no one has thought of. Randomly generate a verb and do that. There, it’s in your poem now. That part is the least practical because it’s the most sacred. And fun, and insane, and important. Truly important breath is never practical. Are there cliffs you miss? Don’t go “up on stage” when you do a poem. Bring us up to those cliffs. Bring the room down. It’s OK if your show is about death. If there is a little leftover burrito shit, that’s fine. We’ve been there. We love you, and we’re not here to listen. We’re here to be with you and yes and. We’re in the poem now.