UpBeat, The Baltimore Book Festival

Two weeks ago, the Baltimore Book Festival once again brought thousands of people together to celebrate literature in many forms. Virginia Crawford attended not only as visitor, but was at the helm of a panel exploring the place of music in poetry. Here’s what Virginia had to say about the panel and the festival:

This weekend [Sept. 27th-29th] at the Baltimore Book Festival, I had the pleasure of moderating Upbeat: The Music of Poetry in Performance, a panel discussion with three remarkable poet-teachers. The event was in celebration of Little Patuxent Review’s Music issue and to mark the now annual 100 Thousand Poets for Change international celebration. Gregg Wilhelm of CityLit Project kindly hosted myself; Laura Shovan, editor of Little Patuxent Review; Clarinda Harriss, professor emeritus of Towson University and founder and editor-in-chief of BrickHouse Books; LPR contributing editor Linda Joy Burke, a poet and performance artist; and poet Slangston Hughes, one of the slam coaches for the Baltimore City Youth Poetry Team. A great big thanks to CityLit for giving us the time and space for this energizing conversation.

(Photo: Laura Shovan)

(Photo: Laura Shovan)

Linda Joy Burke began with a musical session that she often uses to introduce students to rhythm. She distributed instruments to the audience and showed everyone how to play them. The audience investigated their shakers and cow bells and lovely percussive things I can’t actually name. It was an auditory mess. But then Linda Joy stopped everyone and had each person begin playing one at a time, instrument by instrument, filling the spaces or beats created between each other.

Linda Joy Burke conducting the audience/musicians. (Photo: Laura Shovan)

Linda Joy Burke conducting the audience/musicians. (Photo: Laura Shovan)

This built a quilt of sounds—each instrument or voice holding its own place. She helped create order out of the chaos. Individual voices or sounds could be heard and appreciated. Linda Joy likes to begin this way with students because it can bypass so many things that often get in the way of writing. It connects people to the direct physical experience of rhythm out of which great writing can emerge.

Clarinda Harriss encourages everyone to listen to the rhythms in everyday life—the cadence of a bus, the rhythms inside our own bodies—and invites them to share their own self-made sounds. They might resemble wolf-calls or other beastly noises—they can be anything that has meaning for the students. Then she invites them to write from that voice. They can incorporate the sound into the poem or simply use it as an access point. Either way, the sound takes the writer into another consciousness she might not otherwise have the opportunity to write from.

From left to right, moderator Ginny Crawford and panelists Clarinda Harriss, Slangston Hughes, and Linda Joy Burke.

From left to right, moderator Ginny Crawford and panelists Clarinda Harriss, Slangston Hughes, and Linda Joy Burke. (Photo: Laura Shovan)

When asked how he helps his students create music in their poems, Slangston Hughes said that it was more important to say something rather than something that sounds good. He pointed out that young writers sometimes get caught in the trap of wanting to do it “right” but what they really need to consider is doing it the way it feels right. Strong writing can only come from careful listening to our internal voice—that foundation, if you will. You can have all the ornamental awnings and architectural details in the world (or in this case complex rhyme schemes and a dramatic theatrical performance), but without a strong foundation—something to say—audiences will not be moved.

Slangston Hughes performs

Slangston Hughes performs. (Photo: Laura Shovan)

What listeners really want is to hear your own voice, that thing that only you can produce and fit into the great quilt of life. Linda Joy reminded us that even after a piece is written and revised, when it’s being performed, there should be a sense of listening to the audience. The performance should be a kind of shared breathing between the performer and the audience. Clarinda pointed out the need to speak clearly and slowly so the audience has the chance to hear your music, the song that only you could sing. And Slangston urged us not to just light a torch, not to just say something that sounds good, but to say what we know to be true in ourselves, to set ourselves on fire, to be light.

Virginia Crawford, poet-in-residence with the Maryland State Arts Council, teaches through the Artists-in-Education program. Her book Touch (2011, Finishing Line Press) was featured on WYPR’s Maryland Morning. A graduate of Emerson College, Boston, and the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, Ms. Crawford is co-editor of Poetry Baltimore, poems about a city, and an anthology of student poetry, Voices Fly, with Laura Shovan (2012, CityLit Press).

Editor’s Note: Both Linda Joy Burke and Clarinda Harriss have written about their approach to sound and writing in the past for the LPR blog. Be sure to check out their pieces for still more insights about evoking the music of your own voice.

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Perform All Poems: Reflections on a LPR Poetry Reading

Poets are invariably all too familiar with the declaration, “Poetry is dead.” The Washington Post eagerly informed us that as we inaugurated our president, poetry was ceding its position of power*. Many readers were just as eager to address the Post’s error. One of the main point/counter-point arguments between yea- and nay-sayers was the state of the poetry reading. This week Steven Leyva, an LPR contributor and featured reader at the recent Town Square reading and open mic at Minas Gallery, brings us the good news of what thrilled and excited him about this modern poetry reading. As a co-creator a poetry reading series dubbed Kick Assonance, he’s been paying attention where The Washington Post was not:

-“All poems perform.”  Thomas Sayers Ellis

Steven Leyva

Steven Leyva at the Town Square open mic and reading at Minas Gallery. (Photo Credit: Laura Shovan)

The thing about poetry readings is they are really bits of theater in small. Both audience and authors are staged, the verbal costumes (forms!) are shown off, and with a bit of luck everyone suspends their disbelief about the power of poetry in order to be moved.  It doesn’t always work, but when it does, the effect can be spellbinding. An excellent poetry reading can leave you lying awake in bed, attempting to recall certain lines or titles, as you would the name of some handsome stranger who just bought you a drink. And the whole business is great for the authors as well, who in fits of method acting get to act like poets. Though it may seem, with my tongue firmly embedded in my cheek, like I am speaking about a kind artifice, I really mean embodied imagination. The poem made visual art via the poet’s body and voice.  In that mode it seems fitting that Little Patuxent Review partnering with The Town Square Reading Series chose to celebrate its Music themed summer issue last Sunday, August 18th, at Baltimore’s Minas Gallery. And as luck would have it, I was asked to be one of the featured actors/readers.

What’s fun about Minas Gallery as a literary venue is being surrounded by beautiful art in an intimate yet public space.  The vintage clothing store on the first floor works like a quirky foyer for the art gallery on the second floor, where the readings are held. For this reading, instead of paintings, photographs lined the walls. Portraits to be precise. Strange portraits. Plenty of blue-hairs, and I don’t mean older women, and one man with stag antlers. The pieces were lovely, really, and made for an interesting backdrop for the poems, as well as the imagined sense of a larger audience. In terms of actual people, the place was packed, every seat filled, with a few folks standing in the back. Why is it that the “Poetry is dead,” statistics-mad, naysayers can never seem to “quantify” the actual bodies that continue to go to poetry readings?

Minas Gallery packed for poetry.

Minas Gallery packed for poetry.

As a biracial, African American poet I am used to living as a critique and tend take note of audience diversity, inevitably wondering, “Am I the darkest person in the room? The youngest? The only one in a interracial relationship?” What can I say? I like a little meter, a little iamb in my audience. I was not disappointed, and I think that speaks to the strength of LPR as well as The Town Square Reading Series, and The Free State Review whose editors and contributors were in attendance, participating in the open mic. All and all the reading was well set. The poets just had to fill the space with music.

Clarinda Harriss at the Town Hall open mic and reading at Minas Gallery. (Photo Credit: Laura Shovan)

Clarinda Harriss at the Town Square open mic and reading at Minas Gallery. (Photo Credit: Laura Shovan)

I was fortunate to read with such Maryland mainstays as Michael Salcman and Clarinda Harris. One lovely aspect of being a part of a group of featured readers is entering in to that reciprocal space where poems from separate poets seem to act like point and counterpoint, melody and countermelody. Correspondence in air as the poet Ilya Kaminsky calls it. Each of the readers acts as both reader and audience, both costumed monarch and Greek chorus, which is humbling, healthy, and awe inspiring. I believe all of the featured authors would argue for the importance of listening to a poem for what it wants, listening to others by reading, and listening to the imagination, therefore how much more important is it for the same authors to model listening and demonstrate how poets are able to riff off each other in the moment. It reminds me of that old adage, “Acting is reacting.” Poets can and do make use of the sensibility as well. So the Zydeco of my poems talking back to the twelve bar blues in Clarinda Harris’ work, while Michael Salcman’s poem about Bach as fat man sustained like a bass note, created an atmosphere for living verse. But that dialogue wasn’t insular; it didn’t exclude the audience. A joke I made about wanting to be an actor when I was young and realizing that my son (2 years old) is handsome enough to be one, sparked a conversation post reading with audience member about ancestry and striking features. One of the open mic readers mentioned that he was a geologist and said he really enjoyed my poems about place. Can a geologist give a higher compliment to a poet? Other people were enthusiastically chatting about setting poems to music, former poet-teachers, and a whole host of other topics.  In Skin, Inc. Thomas Sayers Ellis suggests that a line breaks multiple times before the final break on the page when written and then voiced by what he calls perform-a-formers. In other words, excellent poets. What I find interesting is seeing the embodiment of those multiple breaks in the proliferation of active, creative conversations after a reading. Conversations about everything that is alive, even grief. Lines were certainly multi-broken at this reading.

(Photo Credit: Laura Shovan)

(Photo Credit: Laura Shovan)

With a bit of “theater” in verse on a Sunday evening in Baltimore, above a vintage clothing store, framed by quirky portraits, with a metrical audience and a few perform-a-formers, collectively another reason was fashioned to transcend our disbelief in the power of poetry. Hopefully in the aftermath author and audience alike encountered in their sleep the name of a handsome stranger buying drinks folded with half remembered lines of poems.

(*See Betteridge’s law of headlines. )

Steven noted the distinct possibility for poets riffing (to borrow a musical term) at readings, finding inspiration from each other in the moment. An interesting contrast is found in Social Justice issue guest editor, Truth Thomas’, account of the differences between the solitary and collaborative nature of music and poetry.

Steven Leyva teaches writing at University of Baltimore and is the recipient of Cobalt Review Poetry Prize. His poems have additionally appeared in Welter and The Light Ekphrastic, and he has published a collection entitled Low Parish. He is the co-creator of the poetry reading series, Kick Assonance.