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what resonates: skidmore, part 2

July 22, 2009

I’ve been hanging out with so many poets (most of whom I was too timid to talk to) this month that it’s almost like I am one of them. 🙂

The week before I left for Portland, I attended three readings as part of the New York State Summer Writers Institute. They featured Louise Glück, Carolyn Forché and Robert Pinsky. Since the readings were more than two weeks ago, my report is hardly breaking news (this is my first chance to write about them). However, I enjoyed them so much that I still want to share my impressions.

July 9 / Louise Glück read poems from A Village Life, a collection that releases September 1. I was so mesmerized by the poems and her reading of them I took no notes (read part 1 of this series to learn how this is different from my normal behavior). She introduced them very simply: with a confession that she wrote the poems to try something new, an admonition to all writers to be sure writing remains an adventure and a warning that she typically reads poems straight through with no breaks and no explanations.

A couple of my fellow bloggers asked me if it was true that Glück believes in unemotional readings. I don’t know what she believes (and she didn’t say), and I had to think for a bit about it to see what I thought. She rarely utilized hand gestures, facial expressions, eye contact or voice inflection. I suppose that could be interpreted as unemotional. However, I was incredibly moved by the poems themselves (they are the touching and tender voices of various narrators). I believe the poems are so powerful that her intention may be to stay out of their way. The only thing I can say I noticed Glück doing by way of “performance” was to play with pacing, especially those silences that hang in the air for emphasis, those breaks that make you ache. I had an extremely emotional response to her reading — the beauty of it stunned me.

Glück was paired with novelist Caryl Phillips, who read from his new novel (not yet released in the U.S.) called In the falling snow. The haiku of Richard Wright inspired the title of the novel: “In the falling snow/ a laughing boys holds out his palms/ until they are white.” Phillips talked with great reverence about Wright and the haiku obsession which dominated the last year and a half of his life. He wrote 4,000 haiku, and before he died, he identified the 800 he liked best.

July 7 / Carolyn Forché read poems that are part of a manuscript-in-progress. Unlike Glück, Forché used hand gestures and vocal changes to give her reading a theatrical feel. She could fan out her hand while describing an object and make you believe the object was floating there in space beside the podium, make you believe she’d conjured its image — a prop, a stage — specifically for our collective examination. She varied the volume of her voice dramatically and often spoke in a partial whisper, like she was telling a ghost story whose outcome could instruct us about either our impending doom or our salvation. She felt her words intensely and seemed to barely contain their power over her. (I wrote a poem by assembling truth and lies from my time in Saratoga the evening of the reading. It is Cantina.)

Forché was paired with novelist Marilynne Robinson. The section she shared from her novel Home was one she’d never read aloud before, saying it was a difficult scene. She told us that Skidmore is always the kind of audience with which “it’s safe to do things it’s otherwise ill-advised to do.”

July 6 / Robert Pinsky read from a collaborative work-in-progress, citing “the spirit of the Writers Institute.” The piece commemorates the election of President Obama by alternating music (Negro spirituals re-imagined and composed specifically for the tribute) with Pinsky’s words. Pinsky admits how daunting a task the project is (says, “the difficulty. That’s why we do it”) and touches upon the importance of feeling vulnerable as a writer. He insists the words that play off the music are not poems, recounting for us the debate he’d had with collaborators over whether or not to print the words in the program when the piece is performed. Although he didn’t want them printed (perhaps ever), he relented, reached a compromise by calling them “lyrics” for the composer’s music instead of “poems.”

When Pinsky reads, he enunciates his words with great skill, managing to wrap his mouth around each one while still reading fairly rapidly. The task animates his entire face — his eyebrows, the furrowed space between his eyebrows, the corners of his mouth — quite delightfully and gives visual and audible rhythm to his reading. He concluded by sharing with us a poem he wrote at a prior Skidmore conference based on an assignment he’d given his students: write what can’t be written about.

Pinsky was paired with fiction writer Jim Shepard, who went first and read one hell of a short story (I apologize that I didn’t make note of the title). He said very little beforehand except for this (paraphrase): “I’m going to take shorter than my allotted time. I know this will bring the poet who reads next to tears of gratitude.” (Shepard also taught and read at Tin House.)

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