Monday, April 25, 2011

A Critique of Pure Readings

One of my favorite poetry readings is the Third Thursday at Forza Coffee Company in Westminster, Colorado. We always have a full house of poets reading to other poets, their spouses and close friends. We usually have a featured reader, who gets three times the time alloted to the open-mic folks. Most of us are open-mic folks. We don't get screened or selected. We show up, we rustle pages, we read two or three poems. This is the most common sort of poetry reading, I think.

I could be wrong. It could be that more people attend a celebrity reading, where one well-known poet reads from her/his newest book and offers a few new pieces. The audience is attentive, there because they know or want to know the poet as a living, breathing voice in the dark. Well, the audience is in the dark, the poet usually well lighted, miked and amped. After the reading comes the selling and signing of books in the lobby or the back of the room. Fans gather and shake hands, gush a bit, then go off to eat enchiladas or home to browse their new books and wonder if there is room on the shelf for this one.

When David Mason, Colorado's Poet Laureate, and his reading buddy, David Rothman, read in Broomfield a couple of weeks ago, they morphed the celebrity reading into a hybrid. Mason talked a lot about poetry, about the origin and function of the laureate and about poets as part of community. I liked it, but a couple of people said afterward that they were taken by surprise, not entirely comfortable with the format, which felt to them like a college class with poems sprinkled in for relief. However, poetry and poets often unsettle us, refuse to fit our expectations, ruffle our feelings like a stiff wind in the mind.

On Saturday I heard, at last, Ernesto Cardenal read in Boulder at Innisfree Books. The room was packed. The reading opened with a song in Spanish by a talented woman, whose name I have sadly lost. Cardenal read in his native Spanish, while a translator by his side handled the English. In many ways, this was what I expected. What unsettled and surprised me was the poet's continued vitality and fresh work at the age of 86. His presence eroded the concept of doddering old men trading fame for admiration. He's a working poet, still wrestling with the truth, often pinning it to the mat and walking away unscathed. Ole! Bravo!

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