Where Poetry Lives

“Where do poems live?” is a harder question than “Why is the sky blue?” “It depends”  may be the most accurate answer, but a live reading never did a poem any harm, and many are only alive when read aloud.

I know where screenplays live. They live on the screen – where the film is. The script itself is a demo version of what the film might be, and screenwriters have to be able to value a script as a script. Novelists published and unpublished have the pleasure of calling a work complete. Of course they’d love to see a stack of hard covers at a bookstore, but a PDF on an iPad is the same kind of experience as a student reading a used copy of Hard Times the night before her European History 102 exam, or at least the distinction is tiny compared with the ways we experience poetry.

The novel, I guess, created a planet full of people with rich psychological lives, the place where most literary thought lives being the interaction of page and eyeballs. My father would have turned 83 yesterday, and he rarely read books but could spend hours reading newspapers cover to cover with the same solitary exploration. I wonder at his thoughts on the civil war in Liberia, just like I wonder what my wife thinks of the row of George R.R. Martin novels on my bookshelf at home. He rarely talked about issues, but if asked could give you an informed opinion, inflected by his own experience growing up with “the war.”

There’s a famous story about Augustine of Hippo meeting Archbishop Ambrose of Milan. Neither one of them were saints yet – Augustine wasn’t even a Christian yet – and he was awed by the fact that Ambrose could read without moving his lips! To Augustine, who was no dummy, it was revolutionary that literature could live in the eyeball-page axis. To him and presumably most people, the written word was just shorthand for where literature really lived, spoken aloud.

bridge poem

The Whitney Bridge in Minneapolis is better known as the John Ashberry Bridge for the poem along its span.

It made Ambrose and his weird new faith alluring, to have a psyche and a conscience so private. This was the year 400, and already we were on that slippery slope to virtual reality helmets.

Poetry lives a double life, on the page and in the spoken word. Poems live on monuments, and some get domesticated for service at weddings and eulogies, but mostly they live being read aloud in small groups. Some friends of mine get together every once in a while just to have some drinks and read poems…at home, where we can control the audio. It’s slightly gauche in this setting to read your own work, at least before you’ve introduced some other published, contemporary poetry or dropped a few classics on the group.

Hearing poems made me write poems, and from this I got drafted to read with a group called the Verbal Supply Company, which hosts quarterly readings, usually at a bar called Halyards, not far from my house in Brooklyn. This Monday we’re moving to the Upper West Side for an evening. The group is celebrating its fourth year, so we’re all just doing extra short sets, and this time around many of the writers will be doing excerpts from memoirs and longer-form fiction. I’ll be doing some poems.

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A previous Verbal Supply Company reading being called to order (photo by Brad Hamilton).

 

“Where do poems live?” is above all a practical question, to the person reading his or her poems. An article from 2014, by a poet named Rich Smith in Seattle, exhorting poets to stop using “the poet voice” keeps getting recycled online. It’s a reason people avoid readings: the dullness of readers, most of whom aren’t in fact performers, emphasizing the cadence and clarity of their work at the expense of any “Shazam!”

I try to be sensitive to that and give it some spoken-English life, but I can also relate to poets trying to honor their poems as literature, to insist on it having some life on the page the way a chapter of a novel does. We can’t help adding a dose of Saint Ambrose.

In its four years, the Verbal Supply Company has insisted that its readers come to a “rehearsal,” and guess what? The readers are more focussed, and the excerpts or poetry more thoughtfully read, a step closer to a theater showcase than an open mic night. When deciding, “Where does this piece live” at least a writer makes a conscious choice.

Past readings are archived online on the VSC website. So you can open a beer and listen at home. Tip your bartender. The third from the top, “Not Yet Fully Monetized” from last summer, is a good one to start with. (If you’re partial to morehastohappen, you can skip to my few poems at the very end, at 1 hour and 8 minutes.)

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