Wednesday, February 22, 2017

From Page to Performance

Poetry is an oral tradition from antiquity. Today we value both the word on the page and in (or on) the air. First is the writing; second, the decision of what to read and in what order; and third, the oral performance of the work. Each stage involves decisions, and each one requires a different sort of attention.

To write a poem is to activate the right hemisphere of the brain, where imagination originates and images or phrases arise, often by complete surprise. The attention required is a subtle one, a chance to be open to whatever is in the mind, beyond thinking, beneath conscious knowledge. That's why I always suggest writing by hand, not only because it's slower but also because it is a kinetic practice, involving the hand, engaging the body, and allowing time for subtler associations to emerge.

To choose and then to organize the poems into a book or series of poems to be read aloud is to operate on a more conscious level, more like editing. Each poet may go about this quite differently, but what I tend to do is to sort the poems in relation to one another to create a sensible whole. This often requires deleting, inserting, or switching things around—a process that in many respects resembles revising individual poems, which can often happen at this stage as well. I always find it exciting if, while doing this, I discover something new, as I did while organizing work for last night's reading at the Annenberg Community Beach House, when I started to see how many poems I had written about listening, which gave me a deeper understanding of how listening is as an aspect of love.

Finally, to practice reading poems aloud in advance of a public reading is not just to prepare to deliver them within the time available but also to reflect on the narrative interaction between poems. I audiotape every poem in the process of writing it, both to hear how it sounds—attending to the music, or cadence, of the poem—and also to sense how it feels to speak it. Reading the poems together, as a unit, adds another layer of complexity.

I always enjoy learning about the stories behind other poets' work. By the same token, I like to share the origin of my poems with an audience, which enlivens the experience for me as well as for the audience, so I make little notes on those pieces that have the most interesting or amusing stories behind them.

Last night, after my public reading had ended, a reporter showed up with a video camera. He explained that he was engaged in a project involving poetry in an orthodox Jewish community and asked if he might videotape me reading and talking about one of my poems. I agreed, choosing one that had some content relating to Judaism. Here is the result:

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