Poetry Reading Primer for Tonight’s Authors Speak Event

By Jane Lin

If you have never been to a poetry reading, this month’s Authors Speak event is a great way to get your feet wet.

Jon Davis, Santa Fe’s newest poet laureate, reads at 7 p.m. tonight, Jan. 24, at Mesa Public Library. Davis’ poetry appeals to the mind and the heart in a language that you will understand.

A poetry reading is just what it sounds like. A poet reads a selection of their poems, usually from any books they’ve published, and sometimes new work they’ve written. Rarely do they recite from memory, but when they do, it’s a treat!

Sometimes they start with a few words about each poem. For example, what inspired the poem or the meaning of some reference the poem makes.

Generally, people do not applaud after each poem. A good speaker chooses with care which poems they’ll read and in what order, so it creates a better experience if the audience shows their appreciation at the end of the reading.

So what should you be doing when the poet is reading? Unless you’ve read their books, you’re hearing each poem for the first time, so just enjoy the experience of listening. You won’t catch everything. Former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins described his desire to take the reader on a ride when they read one of his poems. It’s more like listening to music than a lecture.  Enjoy the rhythms and rhymes, the images that form in your mind.

Poems are as varied as films. They can tell a story chronologically from beginning to end, skip back and forth through time, or tell no story. (Think Koyaanisqaatsi: Life Out of Balance which contrasts time-lapse footage of cities with those of nature).

Too often we are taught to analyze poems to figure out what they “really” means, as if there is one correct answer, forgetting the pleasures of language and the fact that readers bring something of themselves to the work. In a symposium at UNM-Los Alamos in 2009, Jon Davis put it best when he told the audience that a poem is not a problem to be solved, but a chocolate to be savored.

Poems may be autobiographical, fictional, or some place between where memory fails us and imagination takes hold. Remember, poetry falls under creative writing. When a poem is written in first person, we refer to the narrator as the speaker in the poem. The speaker may or may not be the poet.

 In Scrimmage of Appetite, Davis includes a persona poem called “The Story of My Life by Angela Winona Smith.” Similar to a dramatic monologue, a persona poem assumes the voice of another person, real or imagined. The best ones make us believe.

“I stand behind the drapes, and the long story of my addiction unfolds—the nights spent walking the bridge, starved for smack, for the smooth shackle to be clamped round my neck, my veins crying you must die you must die until I nearly jumped, or thought I did, or did jump.”

Davis is a master of the prose poem, which is a poem that does not use line breaks. It takes skill to write a good prose poem and not have it read like a short, short story. It’s also easy to get sloppy and use too many words without line breaks as a kind of container. One of my favorite definitions of poetry is intense language.

Take a prose poem like “The Good Life” in Davis’s most recent book Preliminary Report.

 It begins, “Find yourself some good honest work. That’s what my mama said. Find some good honest work. Do it for eight hours. Come home, eat some pasta, drink a glass of vino, put your feet up.”

The poem makes me feel comfortable, like I’m listening to his mother. From there the poem gathers steam, advising us on getting a solid pair of shoes, then the first surprise,  “A hardworking man needs a hard mattress. None of these water beds, either, she said. You’ll dream of the sea, and a man dreaming of the sea is a dangerous man.”

Suddenly the mother is not just anyone’s mother but feels like a real person with a vein of poetry in her, whether she knows it or not. Jon Davis can be very funny.

The poem ends, “Keep the kids clean and out of the dirt. And don’t let them run with the Dolcini girls. For God’s sake, she said, don’t let them run with those skinny Dolcini girls.”

Davis has an alter ego, “Chuck Calabreze.” I have never seen another poet do this before. At the 2009 symposium, Davis transformed himself with the help of a few props into “Chuck,” a gruff, homeless street poet.

I don’t know if he’ll do it again at this reading, but it is amazing and shows you how we can admire a whole range of poetry, from intellectual and serious to dirt-under-your-nails gritty and smart.



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