Traditionally, two arts have most bent our ear: music, whose relationship with the ear is a long-running whirlwind courtship; and poetry, an art that in its earliest days hung all its hope upon the openness of the aural corridor running to the mind. Music has retained its, shall we say, aural tradition. Few people read the score for Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67″ or even the sheet music for Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” to engage those works’ full effects.
But Poesy “¦ alas! Frequently she is reduced to nothing but a score ““ print on a page, unplayed, uninterpreted, the harmonics of her voice lost upon the eye, even when it is able to observe, “I see alliteration here and at these points, rhyme.” Limiting poesy’s ear-mind marriage to poetry’s eye-mind dalliance clips the maysie’s wings and nudges poetry into social limbo. To ascend to her full and rightful social position, poetry must be seen and heard.
I don’t think I would bother to write verse anymore if I didn’t expect to perform it. Therefore, I support by attending and/or I perform at poetry readings whenever possible. The Bluff Arts Festival hosted a wonderful reading where I was able both to perform and also sit back and let it all wash over me. My son accompanied me–his first public reading. Here’s the write up.
The event was held at the Nada Bar in Bluff, a former bar converted into a private home. Replete with an antique (I think) counter, barstools, and floor space that might be easily cleared for dancing or other social events, the Nada Bar provided a unique environment for a potluck and poetry night. The walls and ceiling of the Nada Bar are decorated with paint handprints and other whimsical artifacts of human contrivance.
The evening began with a potluck dinner, a famous tradition in Bluff. A fellow whose name I did not catch (I’ll try to correct this later) sat up on the stage providing a guitar accompaniment for the meal. While I didn’t know very many of the people in attendance, I felt comfortably part of the gathering.
At 7:00 p.m. the reading began. Father Ian Corbett, formerly of the St. Christopher’s Episcopal Mission in Bluff, returned to attend the Arts Festival, which he helped found, and ended up emceeing the event. A poet himself, Father Ian is used to shepherding a wide variety of people with wit and grace. Having spent many years in Bluff at the mission, he knows practically everybody, and he knows them well.
Since the festival’s theme rotated around the growing attraction between the arts and the sciences, readers were encouraged to read poetry “with a scientific flavor.” The reading had two parts. The first half featured invited writers Katharine Coles, Lorraine Nakai, and Orlando White. The second half was an open mic, which yours truly kicked off.
But before the reading started, retired Hansen Planetarium and Albert Einstein Planetarium Director Von Del Chamberlain stood up to explain the stunning configuration of the new moon and two bright stars lingering near it. Venus, he said was the brightest star and Jupiter the lesser of the three lights. The best was coming, Chamberlain said. The sharpest conjunction would occur on the following Monday and he urged anyone traveling home to cloudy vistas not to go but stay in Bluff where they would be able to enjoy the spectacular celestial view.
Lorraine Nakai, a local poet and crop entomologist, performed first. Lorraine provides a good example of how being present for a live reading heightens the experience. Lorraine is Navajo, so she presented an interesting study for the eye, dressed as she was in a black dress, black stockings, and a bright red beret. She read so quickly, in a dry, tight voice reminiscent of the buzzing of grasshopper wings, that I couldn’t tell where one poem began and the next left off, which was itself an interesting effect inspiring wonder.
Up and coming Navajo poet Orlando White read next. His remarks introducing his verse caught my attention because he said that he believes language has become merely routine, objectified, inanimate. He explained he was interested in the animated side of language, which he’d explored in a series of poems written about the letters of the alphabet. When letters become objects, he said, sentences become skeletal and lose their animation.
Orlando’s ideas on “animated language” took a rather different turn from what I expected. When he spoke the word “animated,” I imagined he meant he was interested in breathing life into language. For Orlando, breathing life into language carries strong overtones of “animated” in the sense that cartoons are animated works. He explained how he was taken with exploring the exotic and evil sides of letters, such as the letters i-j, which he imagined as a letter couple. The “i” is a man dressed in a tuxedo and wearing a bow tie; the “j” is a lady wearing a flowing black gown. At one point, he mentioned that in exploring their evil side, “j” beheaded “i” and “i’s” head rolled to the end of the sentence.
He read from his alphabet series, which for me was an fun ride into a fanciful realm where letters held hands and engaged in other human-like activities. It was one of the strangest turns I’ve ever seen on what used to be called the pathetic fallacy. All the same, the poetry stays with you. A couple days later, I saw the word “hijinks” somewhere and wondered what Orlando would make of those letters cavorting like that.
Katharine Coles read a couple poems invoking mathematics, one a long love poem to her husband that danced around their setting up house together.
Following Katharine’s reading, we took a break and milled a bit.
I must compliment whoever provided the microphone for the event. It was an excellent piece of equipment that gathered and carried the readers’ voices exceptionally well without overwhelming the audience, except in cases where performers showed themselves to be overwhelming by nature, which happened twice.
I had the honor of opening the open mic portion of the event with three poems, a new one I tried out for the first time, “The Mendicant’s Plea,” and then “Stone Mirrors” and “The Pear Tree,” which won BYU’s 1987 Eisteddfod crown competition for the themed poem category.
Then followed a host of some of the most lively performers I’ve ever witnessed, including an absolutely wonderful performance of “peace and good, brotherhood” poetry by a statuesque young lady calling herself “Moonflower.” Wearing tattered skirts (yes, more than one ““ it’s late autumn, after all) a jute cap, and a shy smile, she strode up onto the stage and performed a series of centering breathing exercises, which the mic picked up well, before launching into her slam-rap style pieces steeped in empassioned fragrances of sincerity and sermon. Her very long hair hung down her back, except for one lock in the front, which had been twisted up, died green, and treated somehow so that it stuck out about eight to ten inches in front of her faces, like a tendril looking for a trellis. Reciting from memory freed up her hands which kept in constant motion shaping all kinds of gather-you-in, you’re-part-of-me-I’m-part-of-you-everybody-is-part-of-the-whole gestures. Talk about animated. She brought down the house, which by now was up for anything, the wine having flowed for two hours.
I’ve attended many readings, and usually there’s a pattern where the energy level of performers and audience members drops as the night wears on. Some attendees left after the featured readers performed, and by the end of the evening, the audience had thinned out considerably. But the spark of the performances remained charged to the very end, and members of the audience who sat it out were well rewarded for their persistence. A wide variety of poetry on various subjects and in a wide range of styles paraded through the room, much of the work straying rather far afield of the theme of art and science, but I guess that by virtue of everything being part of the whole the math and science worked out somehow.
The final reader was another Native American, Simon Ortiz, a member of the Acoma Pueblo and prize-winning poet. He echoed in his Native American way Moonflower’s theme of inclusiveness, saying, “We are all part of what is indigenous to being.” But his poetry reflected the dark angle of the belief. He read from his work From Sand Creek, winner of the 1981 Pushcart prize. From Sand Creek is a free verse collection of narrative poems detailing such matters as how “good” Christian soldiers massacred 400 Cheyenne and Arapaho women, children, and elders at an encampment in southeastern Colorado Territory. The massacre took place on the morning of November 29, 1964, upon whose 144th anniversary the poetry reading happened to fall. In the verse he read that night, Ortiz asserted how we share accountability for such atrocities. Since all of the massacres he referenced had been performed by Americans against non-American or non-white communities, I’m not certain who he meant when he said “we.” In general, his work is noteworthy for its concern with the problem of how Native American peoples are oppressed. His reading had the unfortunate effect of turning down the light on the generally positive energy ricocheting off the walls, but one could argue that it fleshed out the evening in a compelling way.
His final act was to conduct something of a sing, a Native American ritual supplication for healing. His song focused sharply on the My Lai massacre that U.S. Army forces perpetrated against villagers in South Vietnam on March 16, 1968. Ortiz has a beautiful singing voice that overwhelms all physical boundaries, pouring into the defenseless ear with a flash flood’s forceful earthy tones and rippling waves. His “My Lia” song, which he stated he sang so as to promote healing, carried common Native American intonations, cadences, and repetitive phrases as well as unique turns in English and perhaps in Acoma (just guessing–don’t speak Acoma) on the name “My Lia.” A hearer of Ortiz’s song would have to be strong, indeed, to resist its almost surgical implantation of “accountability” into the acoustically anesthetized soul. One description of Ortiz’s work says this: “The writings of Ortiz are emotionally charged and complex. His expressions of anger, passion, love, fear, and threats to human existence make the reader question the backdrop of the society in which he or she exists.” The poems he read and song he sang that night of the Bluff Arts Festival’s potluck and poetry fall squarely into that category.
It was a high honor to be part of such a professionally and culturally varied gathering. The vocal spectrum was stimulating. I look forward to participating in the event next year, if I can. My son also found the evening interesting, though he liked the second half of the reading better because he thought it was more energetic and the performers were “better spoken,” and because the second half “opened with my mom.” However, he did not like the “rapidity of Moonflower’s hippyishness” and he found her tendril annoying.