Elizabeth Alexander had to try to write a poem that would please 300 million people and offend not even one. No movie or book has ever accomplished that. Given her task she did a good job and maintained her dignity and her own reserved poetic style. Congratulations to her. (She did some time teaching at Wash U., so I'm not judging her only on her performance today.)I am thrilled that the planners of the inauguration even thought about including a poem. Furthermore they didn't ask Maya Angelou, who's become poetry's biggest bore, even though she is the "right" color and gender. Congratulations to the planners for going for substance rather than show.
Poet Dwight Bitikofer, Kansas native, is the publisher of the Webster-Kirkwood Times which he helped start in 1978, and the West End Word, and frequently emcees poetry events around St. Louis. He won second place in the 2011 St. Louis Poetry Center James Nash competition, and has been published in Untamed Ink and Literal Chaos and work is forthcoming in Natural Bridge. Dwightâ€™s rhythmic reading style has roots in jazz, and he often performs with musician Raven Wolf; their next joint appearance is Sept. 17 at the Old Webster Groves Jazz & Blues Festival. His reading style is unusual and not to everyoneâ€™s taste. So I asked him:
What gave you the idea to read your poems to music?
One night in 2006 I went to a reading by James Goodman, who combines his poetry with guitar and oud and singing. There was an opportunity that night for others to read. The small room was lined with four or five or six young men with djembes and other drums. As I read, they drummed. I was enthralled! This is how poetry was meant to be read and heard. When I had a reading opportunity in 2007 at Poetry at the Point, I brought my sonâ€™s band in to back me up on three or four of the poems I read. Audience response was very good.
You have a unique reading style. Nobody else does what you do, and some think itâ€™s way out there. Why do you do it?
The style feels natural to me. And I receive a lot of good response. I try to honor words â€“ their sounds, their meanings, their intensities. I do not have strong memory skills, so I read my work. But I like to have it on a music stand or podium so that my hands are free to be expressive. I hope to know work well enough that I can have a lot of eye contact with my audience. I often feel my audience come to attention, especially when hearing some of my more dramatic pieces. I thrive on that interaction. It connects me with people.
What do you hope to accomplish by writing and reading your poetry?
Like most poets, I would like some recognition. But poetry in its best forms is part of a self-discovering process. When I sit down to write a poem and it goes in some unexpected direction, that is part of an unconscious pathway of discovery. Poetry sometimes enables me to share something of myself that I would share in few other interactions. Poetry gives me permission to be who it is I am outside of the roles of business owner, publisher, parent, homeowner, resident of Webster Groves, son of a farmer, etc. etc.
What is the question you wish people would ask you, and what is its answer?
â€œWhat life experiences, events and stories shape your writing?â€ I think my writing is especially shaped by the rhythms of my childhood world. I am a child of flat land laid in square-mile grids under an open sky. I am a student of sunsets, songs of meadowlarks and the wind in cottonwoods. I was raised among Mennonites, people with a literal interpretation of the Bible, lots of expectations and prohibitions, strong beliefs in heaven and hell, sin and redemption, hymns sung a capella in four-part harmony and thousands of grueling hours of church. These were pacifists, strict-but-kind people who worked very hard and shared much of what they had. I worked from a young age and it gave me character. I was terrible at sports, but I could spell, and drove farm vehicles at age 10. I piloted trucks and combines from Texas to the Dakotas during the summers starting at age 17.
I became a city person around my 21st birthday. Worked at a social service agency and drove a taxi. Married and had three children. That held together for 19 years, but its difficulties also opened doors into a new way of looking at the world and life through a 12-step program (Al-Anon). That in turn, blossomed new friendships that introduced me to healing touch and to some spiritual practices and ceremonies passed down from Native American traditions. All of those things â€“ plus travel â€“ shape my poetry. And I am grateful.