Imagine you’re a young chef, about to leave Le Cordon Bleu after having studied under some of the best gastronomers the world has to offer, and, just as you’re sent off to practice your art, you realize that nobody taught you the proper way to set a table. Sure, it’s not essential to know whether the fork goes on the left or the right side of the plate to be able to craft a devilishly decadent dinner, but having a good place-setting is essential to the atmosphere you’re trying to create around the experience of your cooking.
That’s how I felt when, a year ago, almost to the day, I walked across the stage at Kenyon in my cap and gown, where I was hooded by one of the senior administrators and received my diploma from the president of the college. I, at that moment, had an AB in English with an emphasis in poetry, but nobody had ever taught me across four years filled to the brim with English classes, how to give a reading.
Performance, I think, is as essential to poetry (and prose, but a little less so) as writing a good line. The delivery of a poem is what makes it stay with us over time, and while a great reading doesn’t do much to enliven a terrible poem, a terrible reading can certainly kill a great poem.
Three weeks ago, at the end of my first year of the MFA program at Southampton, many of the students and most of the faculty gathered for one last Wednesday night reading before we all dispersed for the summer. Behind the lectern where Guggenheim Fellows, Peabody and Emmy-winning journalists, and Pulitzer Prize-winning poets had read, we apprentices of fine arts would headline the night.
Aside from a short rehearsal with one of the professors, which was mandatory if we wanted to participate in the showcase, no experience reading was necessary. Far be it from me to say that we all need degrees in drama if we want to be good poets, but an intimate comfort with performance, which actors have, is just as good as having a favorite pen, or a talisman on hand.
Generally, I’m not superstitious, but ever since the summer of 2014, a year after I met Lauren Kessler, a stunning poet, at an open mic night where I was so nervous that after the briefest of introductions, and with the minutes counting down until I was needed on stage, I handed her a battered folder with some 60 of my poems, and asked her to pick three for me to read, I’ve carried a poetry stone with me every time I’ve read publicly. When we made a set of six last year, three with her lines written on them and three with mine, poetry stones began as Lauren’s and my commemoration of the day we met.
Since then, they’ve grown into (at least for me) a way to keep myself calm during the many readings I’ve been doing, both for my book, Honeyvoiced, and for other occasions, like the MFA Showcase three weeks ago. Even though she was in California and I on the East End of Long Island, a couplet from her poem “Stained” decorated the sea-stone nestled in the left breast-pocket of the silk shirt I wore: come to me in a thousand paper words /drenched by a storm.
As writers, our careers are bound up in a multitude of relationships—with our families, our friends, our editors, and our audience. It’s all but impossible to grow the latter two kinds of relationships at all if we don’t inhabit the public eye whether by performing at readings or by sending our work out to be published. I’ve heard many MFA students at Southampton say that they “don’t do readings” for one reason or another—partly, I think, because they’re nervous about performance. Having some dramatic training, particularly at Southampton, since we have a renowned theatre program would do wonders for us writers and would make an infinite amount more sense as a required course.
Currently, our only required course is “Intro to Graduate Writing,” and to say that it’s taught at a middle-school level would be giving it too much credit. Ditching that course in favor of an introductory “How to Read Your Work” would do wonders for the student body and reduce every Southampton student’s weekly kvetching by a factor of a thousand. Even if your school doesn’t have a theatre program, a poet or prose-stylist who is part of your faculty, and is a great reader, could lead a similar course.
The key to a good reading is, I think, not being nervous, and not only believing you should be behind the lectern, but knowing so. Not being nervous at a reading allows you to inhabit your piece as fully as you did when you wrote it—and who knows? One of your most meaningful relationships may arise from your performance, as it did for me on November 15, 2013 when I read three poems after a friend, who was hosting a variety show as part of her senior exercise, approached me because nobody was reading poetry at her event. As I nervously read my poems—as this happened before I’d discovered the effect that an emotion-imbued sea-stone would have on me—I made enough of an impression on a first-year translator, dancer and linguist that she found me at dinner a few days later, while I was in line for kung-pao chicken in the dining hall.
Walking up behind me, she said “excuse me” and I apologized for being in her way and let her walk through. It turns out that she was just getting my attention, which she’s kept from that day forward whether we’re discussing the translatability of poetry, trading recipes for violet jam and white chocolate jasmine mousse (hers and mine respectively) or fantasizing about the languages we have yet to learn while drinking green tea lattes.
It’s no hyperbole to say that just as without Phoebe Carter, Honeyvoiced would be lacking in, among other things, the interplay of emotions she found for it when we sat down in my room last year and spread the 108 poems on my floor. We spent hours getting the order right. So too would my current project, The Lovers’ Phrasebook, which arose from our mutual fascination with untranslatable words, still be floundering, and that’s to say nothing of myself and my craft, which have been steadily improving since we met.
I’ve found that the talismanic nature of a stone, or whatever your personal totem may be, frees you up as far as nerves are concerned when performing work. It’s not so much about the object itself at first, but rather about the emotions surrounding it. If, like the poetry stones, the object mirrors the emotions in some way, so much the better.
For me, memorizing the poems I’m performing, helps tremendously as well. One of my greatest fears is looking up at the audience during a crucial line and bungling my next line because my eyes lost their place. Eliminating my need to look down to a piece of paper also eliminates that fear, and gives the poems more intimacy, a more spontaneous, theatrical quality, and (best of all) impresses a lot of people. As Oscar Wilde said, “there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
I’ve seen a lot of writers perform—both poets and prose-stylists, and of them, only Kathryn Levy (author of “Losing The Moon”) consistently recites her poems at readings, with sometimes two or three poems per set-list appearing before her eyes without having a book between her and her listeners. Even before I got to know Kathryn after studying with her in the fall, and before we discovered our mutual Francophilia, I was drawn to her work not only because of its content, but because of its delivery. It was the summer of 2013, and Lauren and I had foregone the seductive whispers of the ocean crashing on the bay where we had found the trove of sea-stones that we’ve been slowly converting to charms to go hear Kathryn read.
We settled into the third or so row of seats in the Duke Lecture Hall, and a few poems into her reading, once she’d captivated all of us, Kathryn astonished us even further by reciting one of her poems. At first I didn’t realize that the poem was a poem, but rather thought that she was still talking between poems. But Lauren, who knows Kathryn’s work better than I do, leaned over and whispered “she’s reciting it, like you!” Up until that point, I’d only recited a sonnet or two, maybe a piece in blank verse, but I had never thought of my free-verse as something I’d recite and not read.
Kathryn’s transition between her own speech and her poems was seamless, and I longed to achieve that in my own persona when performing. When I’m not at readings, I tend to be at plays. I figured if the leading actors can memorize over a thousand lines of dialogue every few weeks, and inhabit whichever role is thrust upon them as convincingly as any other, I can slowly work towards having, if not all my published poems, at least a greater part of them memorized. The more I can leave my audience longing for them, the better.
Image: Jordi Alonso and Lauren Kessler
Jordi Alonso graduated with an AB in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing from Kenyon College in the spring of 2014, where he studied poetry and literary translation. He currently is a Turner Fellow in Poetry atSUNY Stony Brook Southampton and has been published or has work forthcoming in The Southampton Review, Edible, The Colorado Review, Graze, and other journals. His first book, a collection of erotic poems inspired by Sappho entitled Honeyvoiced was published by XOXOX Press in November of 2014. He is currently working on a poetic cookbook.
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