Friday, February 14, 2003
For the love of poetry: when poets go public
Chances are, even the most casual reader of poems has encountered a comparison between poetry and music. Robert Pinsky, U.S. Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000, takes that comparison into the realm of the audible. He has likened reading a poem silently, instead of saying it, to the difference between staring at sheet music and actually humming or playing the music on an instrument. Pinsky believes poetry was meant to be read aloud. He created the
Next week, two local poets and their group present a reading at the Gleason Public Library. On Thursday, February 20, beginning at 6:45 p.m., George Stalker and his wife Jean Keskulla, longtime residents of Concord Street, along with John Hodgen of Shrewsbury and Sue Ellen Kuzma of Natick, will read works of their own and others. Titled "Landscapes of the Heart," the evening will feature poems of home and city, plus familiar and exotic landscapes. The event is free, refreshments will be served, and audience members are invited to bring their own favorite poems to read.
"Poetry is more and more a part of daily life," says Bonnie Miskolczy, a member of the Carlisle Cultural Council, the organization that sponsors the poetry reading. This group read last year at Gleason • love poems on Valentine's Day • and the audience, while small, was so enthusiastic that the poets were asked to return.
This is a working group. They coalesced roughly five years ago and now meet about every six weeks to read and critique each other's ongoing works. All of them are published and some have won competitions.
"An audience needs to have time to hear the voice of the poet," says Stalker. "Poems can come alive more quickly, and the poet can establish credibility by way of reading."
Stalker tells me that a poet can do things in an audience that can't be done on the page. "The page is a limited palate," he stresses. "When you're reading, you don't need to use that limited palate. A poem on the page has one music. When you're reading, there's the music of the words and the music of the voice, and they don't have to be the same music." Stalker goes on to describe the joy of watching faces in an audience respond to the same images as he's reading, or the sensation of seeing a humorous line reverberate through the audience. "And then there are those velvety silences," he says, "when you know you've struck something in the people."
Stalker believes that one of the imperatives of a poem is to take a strong emotion • whether it's rage or grief • and make it impeccable, "so that others can understand and accept it."
Gathering in groups
Barbara Bennett is a prolific poet with nearly 180 works in her collected notebooks. Growing up, her family wrote little poems to accompany the presents they gave each other. A resident of Concord who lived in Carlisle from 1982 to 1992, she began submitting poems to the Mosquito in the mid-1980s. Over the years, she has been published in a number of small poetry journals.
Now, every other week, she walks to the Concord Library to join six to eight other poets. They read their own works and give each other constructive feedback. At 80, Bennett still finds the experience inspiring. "If you write a poem," she says, "you don't want to just put it in a folder."
She describes this group, and others that she has been in, as grassroots efforts. "These people go to other groups in other towns," she explains, "and Cambridge seems to be a center."
Bennett credits Pinsky and the current Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, with making poetry more accessible to the average reader. In January 2001, Collins launched Poetry 180, a project designed to make it easy for students to read a poem each day of the 180 days of the school year. "Now when I tell people that I write poetry," says Bennett, referring to its broader appeal, "I feel I have nothing to be ashamed of."
Paul Morrison of Sunset Road traces his interest in poetry back to the sixth grade. "We had to memorize a poem. I got charged," he admits, "and memorized at least three."
About two years ago, he joined a newly formed poetry-reading group. "This is not an analytical group," he says. "The atmosphere is light. People read and we listen appreciatively."
The group meets once a month. After an hour or so of potluck meals and wine, the 12 to 20 members sit in a circle and take turns reading poems they like. Occasionally someone reads his or her own work, but most of what is shared is the work of published poets.
Morrison likes the social atmosphere • it's mostly couples • as well as the sense of discovery and exposure to poets he doesn't know. "I've added eight or nine new [poetry] books to my shelves," he says. He compares his poetry-listening experience to a concert. "The words wash over you, like music, and an image can catch you or offer a new twist on a subject."
Open doors, open mike
In March 2001, Twice-Told Tales, a used-book store on Commonwealth Avenue in West Concord, opened its doors to poets in search of a public. On the first Wednesday of each month • unless that day falls on or near a holiday • Molly Carocci lines up a few rows of chairs and sets out refreshments for a 7:30 p.m. crowd. The crowd is sometimes small, six to ten people, but it's been known to swell to 20 or more.
"We began in response to requests from local poets with no forum for reading in a public and informal way," explains Carocci, the store's co-owner and manager. "It's become very popular."
Anyone from beginner writers to serious unpublished poets to serious published poets to just listeners is likely to show up. Most people read original works, but sometimes they read the works of other poets. People quickly get over stage fright because of the informal atmosphere, and because there is no actual microphone. Readers simply sit in big comfy chairs facing their listeners. Sedgewick, the resident cat, is likely to be sitting nearby in her assigned chair. Carocci introduces each reader, who is then allowed to read three or four poems. "But that's informal, too," she says. Afterwards, there is a response time which she describes as "very interactive."
"Poetry Night at Twice-Told Tales is always looking for new people," says Carocci, while emphasizing that it's most appropriate for older teens and adults. Many listeners eventually become readers.
"This is not a poetry slam," she concludes. "Poetry is not a competitive sport. We love all kinds of poetry, and we have a welcoming and supportive space here."
"If a poem is written well," says former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, "it was written with the poet's voice and for a voice." He may have started a revolution.
© 2003 The Carlisle Mosquito