Discovering the Relevance of Words
Eight years ago, in November of 2005, I shared the stage at the old Bowery Poetry Club with my mentor Billy Collins. Because of Billy’s busy schedule, the event had been scheduled well over 18 months in advance during which time Bob Holman, the owner of the club, suggested that we try something new with the format: reading back and forth, poem for poem. Instead of me opening for Billy, it would be an ongoing conversation.
The event was such a success that Bob asked me to make it into a monthly curated series, and that is how Page Meets Stage was born, a series that has brought together on one stage two poets—one ostensibly more performative and the other more traditionally page-oriented—well over 50 times. I’ll be participating in another pairing this autumn, on Wednesday, September 18th, with the amazing Faith Shearin. In the eight years Page Meets Stage has been around it has become a vital bridge between two camps of poets who keep forgetting they live under the same tent. Here are some observations I’ve made, some obvious, others more nuanced, in eight years of curating this series recently nicknamed “where the Pulitzer Prize meets the poetry slam.”
Where the poem exists. A few weeks before my pairing with Billy, I asked him casually in conversation how he liked to prepare for his readings. He said, “I don’t. One reading is a rehearsal for the next reading. After all, the poem exists here, in the book; how I might read it aloud on any given night is almost incidental.” I told him that he was, as far as I was concerned, dead wrong. Because to a spoken-word poet like myself the poem exists now, at the moment that I am speaking it for your ears; and what for us is almost incidental is how the text of the poem might happen to look on the pages of a book. Of course, Collins’s perspective did not surprise me. In fact, it delighted me; it pointed to the very need and value of the series I did not know then I would still be curating eight years later.
The poets switch places. We don’t make too much of the labels “page” and “stage” when curating the series because almost everyone we choose is reasonably accomplished on both of those “surfaces.” In fact, the name of the series might just as easily refer to the place within each poet where a poem wrestles with its own place on the spectrum between public, oral celebration and private, literary epiphany. But, as you might expect, the stage poets are usually more animated, and the page poets speak in a more textured language. At least, at first.
Often, as the reading progresses, the poets switch places. The stage poets start reading their newer, more literary, less “slammy” poems, and the page poets come out of their shells and may even bust out a few poems from memory. Dana Gioia, who represented page opposite Victoria McCoy earlier this year, performed at least half of his entire set from memory to the delight of the crowd.
The microphone. The stage poets (particularly if they are former poetry slammers) generally know how to adjust a mic stand better than the page poets, who are liable to pretend the height of the mic is perfect for them when it’s obvious that it’s not. Have you ever seen a tall person awkwardly stoop to a microphone rather than risk—what? embarrassment? ridicule?—and make the necessary adjustments? At a recent pairing Marilyn Nelson, who read opposite Jamaal May who is about a foot taller, tipped just the mic itself downward and ask the crowd, “Why can’t I just do this?” The crowd answered back, “Because it blocks your face!”
Breaking down the fourth wall. Nick Flynn, who represented page opposite Rachel McKibbens back in 2007, is one of those rock star poets who could almost represent stage just as easily. In his poem “Jesus Knew,” the speaker of the poem searches for a word that he cannot remember. In an interview with The Poetry Foundation, he said that he wanted the poem to interact with the audience, so I was not surprised at all when he asked the following parenthetical question in the middle of the poem: “Those little papers you trade for your sins . . . What do you call them?” He paused, and a woman in the front row offered “Indulgences?” But Nick didn’t react to her. Instead, he asked again, “Anyone? No?” The woman in the front row—I was sitting next to her—said even louder “Indulgences!” But he continued with the poem as though no one had said anything.
During the Q&A a few minutes later, I asked Nick why he didn’t react when the woman twice answered the question. He was surprised to learn that anyone had said anything during the poem; he hadn’t heard her. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. I think he didn’t hear the woman’s answer because he wasn’t actually listening for it. That was fascinating to me: a page poet eager to interact with the audience but not prepared to actually do so when it happened. A stage poet—particularly a slam poet familiar with drunk idiots yelling “You suck!”—would definitely have heard the woman.
Not exactly freestyling, but the opposite. Occasionally, I’ll notice things, little opportunities that poets miss. Like during the May pairing with C.K. Williams and Angel Nafis; Williams early on did a poem about how lately he’s been getting “WHACKED” by the talent of other poets, YOUNGER poets! It would have been the perfect moment for him to improv a line about Nafis (who was more than holding her own against him). In fact, if I were him, I would probably make a habit of throwing in a line about whomever I was reading with at the time. It shows the audience that you’re listening, that the poem is not static, that it changes with the company. Then again, Williams might disagree, saying essentially, “No. The poem does NOT change with the company. The poem exists here.” Thank goodness for people who disagree!
Taylor Mali reads with Faith Shearin on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, at 8 pm, in the Red Room of the DL Lounge on the Lower East Side of New York City (95 Delancey at the SW corner of Ludlow). Admission is $12/$6 students.