The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts December 1, 2006

Poets Read Compellingly, Even At Length

Poetry readings are strange animals. When they began in their most recent incarnation in the United States, they were undoubtedly performances — the Beat poets drew inspiration from jazz and scat and read aloud accordingly. Since then, with the rise of book tours and a seeming glut of poets and reading series, the average poetry reading has often been nothing more than its name suggests: the poet reading. In the case of one or two readings we have attended at Oberlin College, for example, the poet may as well have been reading to himself in the shower. 

But don’t take your finger off the poetry-club pulse, because the Reading Revolution is here. Think of Thomas Sayers Ellis, a reader last year in the Creative Writing Program series, whose reading style with hints of spoken-word poetry and funk music could never have been predicted from the way his poems lay on the page.

Think of all poets who bother to look up from the book while they read. These poets are not bewildered pre-bar-mitzvah students whose friends happened to walk in on them — they are aware of and reaching for their audiences. Though much has lately been made, and rightly so, of her poems on the page, Martha Collins, who shared last Sunday’s Main Street Reading Series with David Young, is also this kind of a reader. 

Collins, who is currently on sabbatical from her position as the Pauline Delaney Professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin, has been using her time away to read from and promote her new book-length poem, Blue Front. The poem is a detailed retelling of and meditation on a lynching that Collins’ father witnessed in Cairo, Illinois, along with ten thousand other people, when he was five years old.

Instead of relying on a linear narrative, Collins takes advantage of her removed perspective and composes the poem as a kind of detective.  Reading or listening to the poem is a little like going through an attic crammed with shoeboxes — Collins makes use of fragments from newspaper clippings, conversations with her father, interactions with people from Cairo and her own reflections on loaded words like ‘hang’ and ‘shoot.’ 

Collins began with excerpts from a chapbook, Gone So Far, and then announced that she would read from the lengthy first section of Blue Front without a break.  For a listening audience accustomed to page-length poems with frequent stops for the poet’s commentary and quaffs from the water glass, it could have been a death sentence — but Collins did not retreat into the book’s binding.

There are really only two kinds of readers-aloud of poetry — the first prompts a collective slumping and hanging of the head in the lap, which sometimes indicates thoughtfulness and which sometimes indicates sleep; the second refuses to lose the eye contact with the audience.

Martha Collins is of the second kind, a status she owes to the fact that she has nearly memorized much of what she read from Blue Front, and can therefore pay a great deal of attention to the impact of the spoken words. Her awareness of her own words forces the audience to be aware as well — there were few lap-lookers during Collins’s half of the reading. 

After a sustained applause from the full crowd (not an empty chair to be found!) Martha Collins turned the podium over to her friend and colleague David Young. As the Donald R. Longman Professor Emeritus of English and Creative Writing and an editor of the prestigious FIELD Magazine at Oberlin College Press, David Young wears many hats around Oberlin. 

In recent years, he has been best known to Oberlin students as the teacher of the Translation Workshop. Young is also a prolific poet, having published ten volumes of his own poetry and translated the works of Petrarch, Eugenio Montale and several Chinese poets.

David Young, in his classic white-on-white combination (hair/collared shirt) began his reading by praising Collins’s work and commenting on the eerie blankness of the FAVA gallery’s walls.

“There is usually a lot of art in here,” he said rather ironically, drawing a few laughs.

Young’s reading included many poems from his latest collection of poetry, Black Lab, published earlier this year by Random House. The title of this collection was inspired by the poet’s own dog, Nemo. Young says he had a get a dog after his retirement to keep himself physically active. 

In his poem “Black Labrador,” Young tells us that “Churchill called his bad visits from depression / a big black dog.  We have reversed that, Winston.” Young describes the joy of taking his dog out in the snow: “The white flakes settle on his back and neck and nose / and make a little universe.”

This poem exhibited some clever plays on language; “It’s best to take God backward,” Young assures us, since God, like his dog, is “A deep but dazzling darkness.”

Other poems included “Walking Around Retired in Ohio,” which describes the acuteness with which one can observe the natural world after waking and realizing, as Young states, “There isn’t anywhere I have to go!” 

Another, “Sally and the Sun,” is a silly rhyming piece that features illogical verb and object combinations inspired by Young’s reading of philosophy — these include “Sally cut the sun,” and “Daniel handled language,” and make the poem feel like an offshoot of a Mad Libs game. 

There were also some more poignant poems, including several about the death of Young’s parents, and “The Hour of Blue Snow,” where Young ended his reading, describing that moment between day and darkness when the snow appears almost blue. Here we see Young examining his own state of aging.

“I remember to breathe again,” he says, “And the blue snow shines inside of me.” In general, Young’s reading seemed to be emblematic of his journey into “old age” — pondering the Ohio landscape, following his romping dog, and both elegizing and celebrating the world he sees before him.  

While the physical response to Young’s reading may have been more along the lines of the thoughtful gaze, it was certainly not the stare that masks sleep in an 8 a.m. class.

Physical response of any kind at a reading or concert is perhaps what performing artists (live poets included) should look for. Indeed, it is to the credit of both Collins and Young that the audience found in what they heard different manifestations of, to de-contextualize a phrase of Martin Luther King’s, “something that moves them.”


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