May 28

Blue Material

cabaretPeople said hello and I briefly replied and excused myself to the rearmost room and its rearmost booth, where I sat quietly alone and ate a mozzarella stick for fuel to get through the 25-minute reading for Chance Operations last Monday night. The Chance Operations series run by St. Louis artists/poets Tony Renner and Chris Parr just celebrated its second anniversary. I had read there before and loved it; anything goes. So I had some risky / risque poems to read, work that, shall we say, painted with a broad brush, poems that normally would not see the light of day nor be aired. I didn't do "blue" material just to do it. The poems had actual content, and I am also interested in literary expectations and the boundaries between what is and isn't acceptable. Also at this point I have nothing to lose and for an artist this condition is ideal.

It went well. This entry is not about the work or how it was received (just fine!) but on the exceptional demands that "blue" material makes on the speaker. First I had to slenderize the poems so none of them sounded blue for blue's sake, making sure each line carried genuine content. At Chance Operations delivery really counts: Entertainment is valued. And real entertainers don't falter, shuffle through papers, get self-conscious, apologize for their material, mumble or mess up, and they care about timing and shadings in volume, speed and tone. They can't be worried about their clothes or looks, so I wore the simplest possible thing. I wanted first to have no patter at all before and between poems but saw I needed to give context at least twice but kept it very short. While rehearsing I kept revising, so the poems were not completed until the day of the reading. It was evening and I knew I would be physically tired before I even started, so I asked to "go first" and carefully geared myself up with a cup of coffee and protein, and sat alone to get focused and centered. It was going to take enormous confidence. I have never disciplined myself so severely for a poetry reading. The preparation paid off, though. Entertaining is no joke!

My co-readers on that evening were Eileen G'Sell and Gabriel Fried. The photo was taken by Tony Renner. Thanks to Chance Operations for the chance!
Apr 14

If You Don't Come to My Reading, I Won't Come To Yours, Etc.

I sometimes do not feel up to attending a literary reading, and if I am not up for it I can't enjoy the event. If there were a live feed I would tune in. But I can't be there because of work, tiredness, weather, a second round-trip commute to the city when I was just there that morning, previous commitments, and so on. But what I never do is "boycott" a reading because the readers "didn't come to my reading, so I won't go to theirs." Being there is certainly a show of support for the readers and for the literary community. But not being there is not declaring non-support. I have no right to expect specific people and get bent out of shape if they aren't there, even if they promised to be. Even if I have a new book out and they should buy it. Even if they are friends of long standing. That I have the privilege of reading, and that anybody at all is there, should be experienced as an honor. And if the crowd is small -- well, am I there to nourish my ego, or to nourish the audience? I am there by grace and should be gracious as possible, and my focus should be on literature, not me.

A few "take attendance" at their readings, and micromanage their own attendance as if it were a game. Sure, a reading is a social event, and I like to see a crowd and familiar faces, and to chat and gab and catch up, and I know about give and take. But to hear that someone is "hurt" because so-and-so did not show up, or that he or she deliberately avoids events or book-buying until the score is evened -- well, that's a Christmas-card attitude. Either you send holiday cards because you like people and want to send good wishes for their holidays -- or you send cards to see if you'll get one in return, and if not, that's instant Memory Hole. At that point it's not about love anymore.
Jul 21

Inaugural Poem: My 2 Cents

20 January 2009

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.
Jul 18

Talking With: Dwight Bitikofer

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. Dwight’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 everyone’s taste. So I asked him:

dwightbitikoferWhat 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 son’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 it’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 – 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?

“What life experiences, events and stories shape your writing?” 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 – plus travel – shape my poetry. And I am grateful.

May 08

Show Business for Writers: Hecklers and More

#7. Don’t apologize onstage. If you make a mistake, a slip of the tongue, knock over the mike, etc., ACKNOWLEDGE it by saying “Oops!” or “Let me try that again,” and MOVE ON. Never begin a reading by apologizing for anything. (“Some of these poems aren’t very good” “This is an excerpt from a novel, so it probably won’t make any sense to you”) The audience doesn’t perceive this as honesty or humility. They've wasted their time coming to hear literature that even the author thinks is no good.

#8. People will not remember what you did, but they will remember how you made them feel. (Attributed to Walt Disney)

#9. Heckling is rare, but don’t ignore it if it happens. Always have a response ready. At a reading in a pub, I saw a poet heckled by a drunk. The poet bravely tried to ignore him. Rather, he should have acknowledged the heckler by saying something like Hank Williams used to say: “Somebody get a shovel and cover that up over there.” Dick Gregory, who integrated the Playboy Club, handled a heckler thus (preserved on a live recording): “If you don’t like me, why don’t you just get up, burn your cross and leave?”

#10. Is your audience fidgeting, bored, escaping out the exits -- while you're reading? Change your tone. Not your speed, but your tone.
May 08

The Easy Public Reading

At a poetry reading this past week, the poets got to sit down while they read their work. Normally, solo speakers of all sorts, like stand-up comics, must stand, or -- we were offered this -- perch on one of those high bar-stools that intellectual-type comedians such as Dick Gregory or Mort Sahl used to use, back in the day. Well, the stage was elevated and I was wearing a skirt, so that was not a seating option.

The other poet on the bill, Rebecca Ellis, had learned ahead of time about the customs of the venue and brought a pretty cloth to dress up the table. That way any reader could be comfortable -- and the audience stay focused on our upper halves.

This was the first reading I have ever given while seated. The manuscript pages lay flat on the table in front of me, no chance of dropping them. A cup of water didn't have to balance on the lip of a shaky podium. I didn't have to worry whether my knees were knocking, or if I was too far or too close to the mike. Freed from all that self-consciousness, my energy flowed instead into the audience and the poems. And afterward I didn't feel drained. Instead I felt very good. I have said for years that reading one's own poetry in public (like, for 40 minutes to an hour) is very hard work. Well, just this week I learned that it doesn't have to be so hard!
May 05

Going to Readings is Good for Your Health and Ego

Poet Erin Belieu read at Washington University's Duncker Hall last night. Full house; did my heart good to see it. She read "In The Red Dress I Wear at Your Funeral," the climactic long poem from her critically acclaimed new book, Black Box. I am so glad I went. It was good in all ways for my health as a writer.

At least once every two weeks I attend a literary reading or event in order to stay current, to learn, to enjoy, to listen to the hot new poets or honor the hot old ones. Always I keep a notebook and pen at hand, because it seems that poems attract poems -- at readings, the whole room fills with them, like butterflies -- and I want to capture my share to take home. Some of my best ideas for prose and poems are conceived at readings. It's a stimulating environment, full of thoughts and ideas: totally writer-friendly.

That said, I like Ms. Belieu's poems, but at their best they are only about 5 to 10 percent better than mine -- a great boost to my confidence. And on the way home it occurred to me that no matter how painful, the end of a love relationship is not at all like real death. That metaphor originated with court poets who wrote for the elite. We in the wealthy USA use that metaphor to lend drama to our lives. Anyone who has seen death knows that by comparison, a love relationship gone bad is bubblegum.
Apr 25

What People Say

A very serious young student heard me read from my poems. I asked her opinion later. (Never do that.) She said, "Cute."

She was being pompous in a twentysomething way (recalling too well my own flaming youth), but this lodged in me like a grain of sand in an oyster. Of all the things I've been and ever aimed to be, I've never wanted to be cute. I'd like to be entertaining, like Chaucer, but also have his smarts. Coy, kittenish -- no!

A hundred defenses occured to me: She doesn't register my feminist politics -- because she's so young she never had to have any! -- She has no idea what poetry costs! -- and so forth.

Then I saw this Soviet-era quotation from a poem addressed to poets:

“[…]/ This is for you—who dance and pipe on pipes,/ sell yourselves openly,/ sin in secret,/ and picture your future as academicians/ with outsized rations./ I admonish you,/ I—/ genius or not—/ who have forsaken trifles/ and work in Rosta*,/ I admonish you—/ before they disperse you with rifle-butts/ Give it up!/ Give it up!/ Forget it./ Spit/ on rhymes/ and arias/ and the rose bush/ and other such mawkishness/ from the arsenal of the arts./ […] There are no fools today/ to crowd open mouthed round a “maestro”/ and await his pronouncement./ Comrades!/ give us a new form of art—/ an art/ that will pull the republic out of the mud.”

Spot-on, I thought. Was that what my student had meant? But has a poet ever done that? Maybe Whitman? But with such a muddied republic as ours is? Can it be done? What would it cost me? Should a poet care what it might cost?

[from The Bedbug and Selected Poems, by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Indiana University Press, 1975. Translated from Russian by Edwin Morgan. *"Rosta" is a contraction of "Russian Telegraph Agency"; the line's connotation is "and give my all for our people."]
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