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.

Jun 27

Gigs, a.k.a. Literary Readings

To get literary "gigs" -- invitations to read one's work to an audience -- you circulate, belong to clubs and groups, know people, pass on the names of underappreciated writers, and stay active on the local literary scene, whether publishing, editing, teaching, or being in the audience. I'm preparing for three gigs: November 14 (poetry), Regional Arts Commission, across from the Pageant Theater, 7 p.m.; November 19, UMSL (prose); then another on December 13, Black Bear Bakery, 2 p.m.

I love gigs because I write to communicate, and they give me a chance to air favorite works that for whatever reason aren't published: because they're new; because they're risky or offbeat; because I haven't a clue as to who'd publish them. A poet is a one-man band -- has to hold the audience as Aerosmith or an opera singer would hold it, without any of the instruments, props, amps or roadies. Just a voice and words on paper. This is one of the greatest challenges anyone could ever face. And one of the most rewarding to ace, whether you get money or not (mostly not). I strive to give a polished performance that offers a few twists and shocks.

You'll see and hear what I mean.
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!