By John P. Tretbar
For years, I've asserted that a poem is not complete until it's read aloud. I blame it on Aristotle. A poem can sit, in a book, on the shelf, unopened, gathering dust, and eventually die in the used-book bin. Or, it can leap boldly into action, sing and dance, and live forever.
Is poetry a performance art? I believe it is. Aristotle was a chiropractor by this standard. If the poets of ancient Greece had to lug around journals and notebooks carved in granite, there would be no poetry collections in the used-book bin (or anywhere else, for that matter). Back in the day, they used memory and performance to get the word out.
Once again, I have cast a wide net, to pose this question to my panel and crowdsource a column. Once again I am surprised and delighted by the results.
Let's start with our old pal, St. Joseph poet and bookseller Hans Bremer, who says, in the end, it depends on the poet.
"Some writers have no intention of reading in public," Bremer told me. "Writing isn't synonymous with performance."
He acknowledged the potential therapeutic release for the poet, and the possibility of community for an artist who generally works in isolation. But Bremer quite correctly warns of "inflated egos, performance over content, and all sorts of other collisions.
St. Joseph poet and operatic rock star Lory Lacy said we can become a stranger to our own work. "These inner worlds, the feelings and thoughts we give voice to, are sometimes overladen with the color of our vocal cords and intonations," Lacy said. But, she acknowledges a potential "sparkle of birth" when a piece is read aloud.
"Just as I would love to travel back in time to hear Paganini play one of his own Caprices, a signature gets carved in time when a poet reads. So why read? That question needs to be asked each and every time."
Denver Actor/Director/Producer Susan Lyles says live performance is more important than ever.
"We need that human connection and shared experience in a world where technology has made us more and more disconnected as human beings, and less and less empathetic," Lyles said.
Seattle-based actor Brian Gunter points out that fear of public speaking is one of the most common fears there is, and says the potential for negative judgments of your own work can make the experience of reading it out loud "absolutely terrifying." On the other hand, Gunter warns of becoming removed from the "eternal and essential now-ness of it."
"To discover and experience the particulars, the particular possibilities of now, what this moment offers and what this moment wants, and to try to keep this experiencing as open and alive as possible, might be, as frightening as it may seem, the safest general way to go about getting something out of it."
Mathematical poet Kazmier Maslanka says it's all about shared culture. "The acculturation process functions by people realizing that they are predisposed, if not already part, of the culture that informs them of something new."
Freelance writer Terri Cooper Welch tells me the communal experience of hearing a story read out loud increases the enjoyment for the author and the audience. "The author gets to hear immediate reactions to the writing, and the audience gets to share their emotional responses to the work," Welch said.
Novelist Scott Phillips sounds it out as part of the process. "If it sounds wrong spoken, it will sound wrong in the reader’s mind as well," Phillips said. "It's the best way to know if you’ve written something right or wrong."
I sought out more perspective at the recent the "Reach for the Microphone" event at Mokaska Coffee (held each third Thursday). The evening featured more than a dozen writers.
Among them was Jaden Stanton, a student at Missouri Western, who offered a fascinating poem written from the perspective of a rape victim. That kind of perspective shift might otherwise never see the light of day.
Anne Davies also performed. "I like to bring a different perspective to the group: age, and, perhaps, some different wisdom," Davies told me. "I'm also a bit of a ham."
For the audience, a gathering like that will likely be a mixed bag. You must take the good with the bad. The bad can make you wish you never came. The good will make you glad you did.
Warning for potential performers: there will be distractions. There is nothing quite so disappointing as exploding that quiet moment, that pause on the cusp of magic. That is often precisely the moment when you hear the crack of the pool balls, the barista whipping up a fresh latte, or, the guy in the back sneezing.
Take if from Sinatra: "...if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere."