I’m not a huge fan of poetry. I find that most of it drawls on and on with barely-masked imagery and cliché phrasings. More so – and perhaps it’s because I am not trained to read it properly – I find most poetry lingers on the page, rarely popping off. Even when I read a poem that has the power to cause a chuckle, and even when I know the sound of the author’s voice, the words seem to wiggle uncomfortably on the page. They seem unsure of themselves, with little to no motivation that may cause them to leap up and grab my attention. They are just words in a certain order. Sometimes they rhyme.
Last night I attended a poetry reading in the basement level of Tattered Cover. Before it started, under the whispers of the small crowd (people spoke with hushed library etiquette) I poured some vodka into an Izze drink. The glick-glick-glick of the pour was apparent, but drew only minimal attention. I swirled my drink, sipped and waited.
First up was an elderly white woman wearing a dashiki. I only point out that she was white because she reminded me of David Alan Grier doing a Butterfinger commercial as Maya Angelou (an old In Living Color sketch). She was soft and passionate in her reading. But, I didn’t buy the performance. I saw no connection between the emotion in her voice and the words she was speaking. It seemed forced. By the time she got to the word “juices” my girlfriend couldn’t take it. She started to laugh. She covered her mouth and got up, her giggles leaking in uncontrollable spurts from under her hand as she ran up the back steps. I sat there with my other three friends, staring, barely listening to the woman at the pulpit. She was saying something about strawberries and sunlight. (We get it: you're talking about sex.) I kept hearing a tiny, distant giggle.
After the woman’s set I met my girlfriend in the periodicals. Remnants of her laughter remained as red cheeks and bleary eyes. She felt guilty for the smile on her face, though, it wasn't out of malice. It was out of irony and honesty. It was her way of calling bullshit.
Soon it was my friend Nick’s turn. I’ve read his poems. Sometimes they are cute – sometimes too cute. Although they are entertaining, it is sometimes hard to see a meaning through the veneer of cleverness. Read aloud, however, something changes. He matches the words on the page. He doesn’t inject into the reading unnecessary drama, or phony whispers, or moments of clutching the pulpit in false orgasm. Here you will find no somatic or tonal trickery. He stands bare before the crowd, holding the mic in one hand, flipping the stapled pages in the other. A witting smirk crosses his face when the crowd chuckles. He reads fast, almost impatiently. One line follows the next so quickly that it seems each exists only to wait their turn to be spoken, (like a child in a school play, his lines just want to get through this so they can hurry off stage and take a breath, because the pressure of the moment is too great). In this we see Nick: slightly awkward, a little anxious, and with a veneer of cleverness that reassures us that it’s okay to laugh at pain – because he is laughing at his own – and that sometimes a knowing giggle can cut through the bullshit we sometimes have to endure.