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.
#7. Donâ€™t apologize onstage. If you make a mistake, a slip of the tongue, knock over the mike, etc., ACKNOWLEDGE it by saying â€œOops!â€ or â€œLet me try that again,â€ and MOVE ON. Never begin a reading by apologizing for anything. (â€œSome of these poems arenâ€™t very goodâ€ â€œThis is an excerpt from a novel, so it probably wonâ€™t make any sense to youâ€) The audience doesnâ€™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 donâ€™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: â€œSomebody get a shovel and cover that up over there.â€ Dick Gregory, who integrated the Playboy Club, handled a heckler thus (preserved on a live recording): â€œIf you donâ€™t like me, why donâ€™t you just get up, burn your cross and leave?â€#10. Is your audience fidgeting, bored, escaping out the exits -- while you're reading? Change your tone. Not your speed, but your tone.
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:
â€œ[â€¦]/ This is for youâ€”who dance and pipe on pipes,/ sell yourselves openly,/ sin in secret,/ and picture your future as academicians/ with outsized rations./ I admonish you,/ Iâ€”/ genius or notâ€”/ who have forsaken trifles/ and work in Rosta*,/ I admonish youâ€”/ 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./ [â€¦] There are no fools today/ to crowd open mouthed round a â€œmaestroâ€/ and await his pronouncement./ Comrades!/ give us a new form of artâ€”/ an art/ that will pull the republic out of the mud.â€
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?