Professors Read Poetry at FAVA Gallery
If you’re reading this just to know how the last Main Street Reading Series was, it was great. You can go back to Lost now.
Especially when Oberlin creative writing faculty members are the featured readers at the yearlong series, the crowd often catches my attention as much as the writers themselves. Just before break, Professors Pam Alexander and Carol Tufts packed the FAVA Gallery with the expected group of English and Creative Writing students and faculty. Joining them was a mélange of what seemed to be older, local poetry fans, who mysteriously emerged from the Oberlin woodwork.
Both Alexander and Tufts read somewhat nostalgic work that evoked, respectively, scenes from the natural world and from Tufts’s childhood. The audience responded to those images gently and supportively. Listeners seemed to have come prepared to laugh at familiar riffs on the flatness of northeast Ohio’s landscape and to take to heart David Young’s introduction of Alexander’s work as being filled with “exactitudes.”
Alexander’s actual reading, however, quietly trumped any potential expectations of pristine geographies and political clichés. Her poems, while they often focused on landscape, did not do so in a photographic way. Instead, they used the simplest tools of images and language to create unusual events, as in the lines “Do not lean the ladders of reason against a burning house,” from “Northeast Suite.”
Alexander had the unexpected advantage of a case of laryngitis, which hushed the crowd more than usual.
“If you can’t hear me, shout,” she said, but instead her students and friends craned their necks politely.
Tufts, whose English Department specialty is drama, turned to a series of autobiographical poems. Her poems remembered historical events while growing up and her childhood home in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Her straightforward, scene-setting style and the evocative manner in which she presented her subjects were a great departure from Alexander’s quieter work. Heads still nodded confidently, though, at the mention of Katharine Hepburn, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and 1950s Brooklyn, all of which made appearances in her poems.
Many contemporary poetry readings have acquired a set of conventions as rigid as those of a night at the symphony, down to the coughing between movements. Is it possible that the expectations created by the podium, brief author prefaces and the arrangement of chairs cheapen the subtleties of fine writers’ work? Do we just go to hear what will make us nod our heads knowingly? And if that is not what is presented, do we laugh and nod at what we think we hear?
Listening to Tufts (and nodding), I thought of the stereotype that Oberlin students have an unhealthy obsession with New York City. Even in the midst of an older crowd, I too found myself trying to remember a specific historical and geographic atmosphere I hadn’t experienced, different even than the one Tufts evoked in her poems. Perhaps we’d all read Neil Simon one time too many?
I fear that in taking words like “nature” and “New York” at face value, other audience members and I missed enlightening parts of a lovely reading. Next time, perhaps we will try to listen more closely.