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Hilary Gan is an MFA candidate in Fiction at the University of Arizona, and the Field Trip Intern for the UofA Poetry Center. This is her first major foray into performance.
I chose my poem because it was funny—funny in the way that I liked: ironic and absurd and not immediately obvious as funny. Good poetry evokes feelings, and I certainly consider “amused” to be a highly desirable feeling to evoke. But funny in poetry is not enough, and my poem, “After working sixty hours again for what reason,” by Bob Hicok, really brings it home in the last line, when the brother who has been taking lessons from the speaker in how to get paid to do nothing, gets up and shaves, “as if the lack of hair on his face has anything to do with the appearance of food on an empty table.”
When I started working with “Backdrop Addresses Cowboy” nearly two months ago, I thought I had cultivated the necessary persona. I knew that I was speaking from nature’s perspective (the backdrop), and I even knew my audience (star-spangled cowboy). From my understanding of her in the poem, nature needed to be detached, yet quietly seething. She neither fears nor despises the cowboy, neither adores nor disregards him. The relationship is complex.
I took for granted that all of this could be conveyed through tone. I would simply inflect here and pause there and voila: an incredibly dynamic relationship between two imaginary people would magically materialize. What I discovered was that despite all the personality changes I imagined myself to be making, I still sounded a heck of a lot like myself. Therein lies the problem with performance. How do I become not myself?
Blake Whalen-Encalarde is completing his MFA in Poetry this Fall at the University of Arizona. He's also a poet-in-residence for the Poetry Out Loud Program.
Deep Summer. An empty campus, a silent Poetry Center. I think: that cameraman, what does he take out of taping teachers as they attempt to recite poems? Of all things he thinks: poems. If this was my poem, I would say that he closes the tripod, packs the camera in his case, and leaves with a faint aftertaste of the poems hovering in his brain somewhere between lunch and editing.
Or if this is a ruse, I am nervous. If this were my poem, I would be the ham that I pretend to be, the one calm on the dais, the one perpetually smooth in the spot light. (I have held the stage plenty; I still cannot hold my hands perfectly steady.) If this were my poem, I would always embody the words, not speak them, that meter would subliminal flow from my mouth, that meaning would shine out from my eyes. (O on a good day!)
Hilary Gan is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Arizona, an Education Intern at The University of Arizona Poetry Center, and writer-in-residence at Hollinger Elementary.
I was lucky enough to be present for the Poetry Out Loud Southern Arizona Semi-finals competition--I even scored a seat by the outdoor propane heater for the last half. I am a fiction writer who knows very little about poetry and who tends to favor the out-of-vogue and terribly inappropriate narrative poetic stylings of Charles Bukowski. I like it when ugly language is repurposed into something beautiful, and I like finding beauty in grittiness.
My mother is an English teacher and says that the best poems for high schoolers are the old, tried-and-true sentimental poems: 'O Captain, My Captain!" and so forth. Sentimental rhymers were the poems most of the students chose to perform.
Robert Oliphant argues in his article "Speech, Hearing, and America's 100 Most Memorable Children's Poems" that the memorization of poetry helps children develop phonemic awareness, learn multiple connotations for words, and become "civilizationally literate." He goes on to explain that rhymes allow children to practice distinguishing between consonants, while literary devices use words in different contexts and allow students to expand their understanding of meaning, as well as expanding their vocabulary to include words that are uncommon in their neck of the woods.
The Poetry Center's Poet-in-Residence Elizabeth Falcón recites "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" by William Butler Yates on November 19th as a part of the Poetry Out Loud Professional Development session for teachers. We encourage teachers and students to view and use these as an example of a strong recitation when preparing for the National Poetry Out Loud competitions at the school, regional, and state levels.
The Poetry Center's Poet-in-Residence Matthew Conley recites "Kindness" by Yusef Komunyakaa on November 19th as a part of the Poetry Out Loud Professional Development session for teachers. We encourage teachers and students to view and use these as an example of a strong recitation when preparing for the National Poetry Out Loud competitions at the school, regional, and state levels.
When participating in the National Poetry Out Loud competition, selecting a poem to memorize and recite is an important decision. Students who have stories to tell about why they select the poems they do at the regional finals really demonstrate how having a connection--and not necessarily a personal one--to a text can make learning and working with that poem more enjoyable and produce a compelling performance. One of the goals the Poetry Center has in serving as a regional partner for this national program, is to set students up to help them start to have a conversation with their poem. This conversation invariably starts early in the poem selection process. Leaving students plenty of time to read broadly is essential to fostering these connections with the text.
The Poetry Center's Poet-in-Residence Logan Phillips recites "Eagle Poem," by Joy Harjo, on November 19th as a part of the Poetry Out Loud Professional Development session for teachers. We encourage teachers and students to view and use these as an example of a strong recitation when preparing for the National Poetry Out Loud competitions at the school, regional, and state levels.
Sarah Kortemeier has worked professionally as a poet, musician, and actor; she holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Arizona and has taught creative writing at the elementary, high school, and university levels. Sarah has published most recently in Ploughshares, Spiral Orb, Sliver of Stone, and Folio, and was a finalist in 2011’s Gulf Coast and Tennessee Williams Festival Poetry Contests. She serves as Senior Library Assistant at the University of Arizona Poetry Center.
What helps a poem to connect with an audience when it is spoken aloud? Each poet, and each listener, will answer this question differently, and there are few hard-and-fast rules that govern performance. However, many compelling performances of poetry do share a few characteristics, such as vocal energy, spontaneity, and rhythmic variation. Poems vary their textures and tempos on the page; their rhythms shift, dance, and play against one another, and effective performances usually acknowledge this, letting the text dictate the velocities and inflections of the reading.
Below is a listing of some performances from the Poetry Center's online Audio Video Library. Though each of these readers handles performance differently, all of these performances communicate both content and music.
Patricia Smith is a poet, performance artist, author, and teacher. She has published five books of poetry including Close to Death (1993), Teahouse of the Almighty (2006), and Blood Dazzler (2008) which was a finalist for the National Book Award. The winner of a Pushcart Prize, Smith is a four-time individual National Poetry Slam champion.
While Patricia Smith got her start in poetry as a slam poet, her most recent collection of poetry speaks to her ability to perform on the page as well with all the force, vibrancy, and conviction that she demonstrates at the microphone. Blood Dazzler is a sequence that explores the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, specifically focusing on the tremendous destruction and loss of life caused in New Orleans. Natural disasters and political turmoil can be difficult subjects to write about convincingly, but Smith uses the full power of direct language to engage with her reader.
The easiest way to describe Blood Dazzler is to say that it is like a slap in the face; Smith never sidesteps the fear, death, and loss that her subject is fraught with. And although she always confronts the issues head on, the most powerful weapon at work in Smith's writing is her sense of rhythm and sound that clearly come from her slam background. She describes "the slow wilting jazz of their legs / razored by the murk" and the battered people who struggle with "that first blessing--forward, forward, / not getting the joke of their paper shoes, / not knowing the sidewalks are gone." Again and again she forces us to confront the suffering of the residents of New Orleans by grabbing our attention with driving rhythms.