Wednesday, April 27, 2011

National Poetry Month: Alissa Heyman on Curating a Poetry Reading Series

Thank you to fellow Sarah Lawrence College MFA alum Alissa Heyman for today’s lovely post. I was happy to read last month in Perfect Sense, the reading series that she co-curates with Hila Ratzabi at Cornelia Street Café. If you are in the area, don’t miss tonight’s two year anniversary reading. Be sure to say hello to Alissa and Hila, pictured above.

Alissa Heyman is a freelance writer and editor living in New York City. She selected, annotated, and edited The Best Poems of the English Language (Mud Puddle Books), a comprehensive collection of essential English language poetry. Her poems have appeared in Lyric, Quarto, and the St. Petersburg Review. She co-curates the poetry reading series, Perfect Sense, at the Cornelia Street Café.

Poetry: That Bad Victorian Child

Poetry is the bad child who is seen and heard. Not only is poetry meant to be viewed on the page, but even more so than prose, it demands to be listened to. Poetry might be written in silence and solitude, but the art of sharing poetry is a noisy business. Having co-curated Perfect Sense, a poetry reading series for established and emerging poets at Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village, NYC for two years, and before that, having co-curated the MFA poetry series there for three years, I can attest to the fact that poetry is destined be the bad Victorian child. It is clear from audiences’ reactions during and after readings that poetry is a communal pursuit both vital and necessary to society.  Poetry demands a vocal outlet.

A poetry reading is not like a stadium rock concert or a Broadway show; it gains power from its intimacy. Listening to a poet in a small, crowded room is the perfect venue to receive poetry’s mandate (given by Emily Dickinson): it must take your head off. It’s no secret to poets that the medium is a palpable, visceral force and there’s no better place than a poetry reading to reveal language’s ability to jolt, jar, nudge, elbow, and transform. No two poetry readings are ever alike just as no two poet’s voices are ever alike.

The physicality of a poet on stage lends itself to the physicality of poetry, an art form that is probably most closely akin to song. Going to a poetry reading is similar to going to a small, intimate concert. The poet-musician is speaking directly to the audience, and the audience through applause, through nods of the head, murmurs, and shout-outs, speaks back to the poet-performer. Wikipedia defines poetry reading as “a performance of poetry, normally given on a small stage in a café or bookstore....” True. But the article goes on to state the near-demise of the poetry reading: “Though a form of entertainment until around the turn of the previous century, especially in the United States, readings have diminished in popularity over the course of the twentieth century. They have become . . . more identified with a literary fringe.” False. The editors of Wikipedia need to do a little more research. The poetry reading scene is vibrant, with new series starting up every few weeks, and poetry writers, readers, and lovers showing their commitment to poetry readings on a daily (or nightly) basis. The poetry reading will continue to defy that old Victorian rule of manner, that children should be seen and not heard: poetry thrives on living out-loud.

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