June 8, 2008

At readings, we hear more than writer's words

Almost any night of the week authors are reading to audiences. Poetry or prose, fiction or non, in cavernous ballrooms or crammed into corners behind bookstore shelves if they read it we will come.

I have an image of us huddling like our distant ancestors around a fire to listen to a story. Why? What atavistic urge draws us and what do we want to hear? I talked recently about this with Andrea Cohen, director of the Blacksmith Poetry Series in Cambridge which is currently celebrating its 35th year. She is the author of two poetry collections, The Cartographer’s Vacation and Long Division, which will be published this winter, as well as short stories.

"As a species we have an ancient longing for the spoken word," Cohen says. "In terms of listening versus reading, Globe writer and book reviewer Gail Caldwell says 'it's a different way of taking in the sublime.' I think people go to a reading to get what they can't get from staying at home and reading on their own. There's an auditory experience, and the communal aspect instead of that of the solitary reader.

We talk about how we both go to a reading to get something extra, maybe what informs the poem or the chance to hear it the way the writer intended it to be heard.

“What I hope a poet won’t do,” says Cohen, “is ‘explain’ a poem.”

Of course it’s not only the listeners who benefit from a reading. I belong to that group of poets that jumps at the chance to read for an audience, and I know how exhilarating that intimate connection can be. After the solitary act of writing, the immediacy of presenting the work to a group is both thrilling and terrifying, a tiny high-wire act. You feel the risk of the exposure and the possibility of an unhappy outcome for all concerned. But you also feel what works and what doesn’t, where the audience is with you, where the words don’t sound right to your own ear. And, after all, what could be more gratifying that listeners giving your work the gift of their rapt attention?

“A reader can generally tell,” says Cohen, “whether he or she is connecting with an audience.”

The writer, too, is giving a gift, one that may never before have been publicly unwrapped. Cohen describes one memorable reading by an emerging writer.

“She had never read before but she discovered she had a talent for reading. She was having fun and the audience was clearly loving it.”

Go to enough readings and you’ll see the gamut--readings going very wrong and very right and hitting every note in between. Easiest gaffes to spot are the inadequate lighting, the non-working sound system or the soft-voiced reader who refuses a microphone, the host who stumbles disrespectfully over the reader’s name or credits, the reader who goes on too long or--what seems strangely more common--not long enough. More subtle is Cohen’s observation of a poet who doesn’t offer a little breathing room between poems. Particularly when a poem carries power, a listener may need a few seconds before moving on to the next one. Prose writers, too, sometimes rush, either out of nervousness or from lack of trust in the material’s ability to connect with and move the audience.  

But when it goes well, magic can happen. Cohen and I reminisce about favorites.; She mentions Robert Pinsky, with his palpable love of the sound of language. For me Frank Bidart is one of the quintessential readers. Although his poetry is often a challenge to understand, he offers it with such generosity that it is nearly impossible not to be drawn to its sound and sense.

Look through today’s paper. Someone is reading tonight!


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©2007 Ellen Steinbaum

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