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Things said at, and remembered about, poetry readings, c.1966/c.2014

Jason Camlot

Selected transcriptions of extra-poetic speech from The Poetry Series, 1966-1974, and SpokenWeb oral history interviews, 2012-2014.


Maxine Gadd: Oh boy. Can you hear me? I don’t know how much projection to do. I don’t know how much to talk about the poetry. My connection is very loose to the mainstream I guess, because, I don’t know, I’m just not socially related to what’s going on maybe in the poetry reading.

Michael McClure: Does this microphone sound right?

Mark Schofield: Microphones were a problem.

Lionel Kearns: We thought of reading all of our quiet poems at the beginning, and then getting louder and louder and louder, but we thought this would get you too excited and you’d go out onto the street. (laughter) So we decided to mix them all up and you’ll get everything quiet and loud and funny and very serious and that’s part of it–you know–getting them all at once all in juxtaposed relationships.

bpNichol: This way you can sort of do what you want with which ones you wanna do. It’s very hard to listen to a poetry reading all the way through. I can never hack poetry readings myself. What Lionel and I are trying to do is maybe do you a favour so you can listen for a longer time maybe. (laughter)

Lionel Kearns: Who locked the door? (laughter)

Margaret Atwood: I’m going to make this reading fairly short because we are all in this rather constricted situation.

Frank Davey: My own feeling about reading poetry is that the poem is exposed to the audience at a much faster rate than what the poem is when it’s on the page.

John Newlove: I’ve a number of short poems. I’m told it’s not good to give them at poetry readings because people don’t listen fast enough, or something.

D.G. Jones: This is written in sections but I won’t bother reading all the numbers, I’ll just pause and go on.

Kenneth Koch: To tell you what happens in this poem would take as long as reading the whole poem, which I don’t have time to do.

Margaret Avison: This is a series. “What we’re trying to do through art is to reach the American people as human beings.”

Jerome Rothenberg: I’m just going to select out of this poems that read easily. The purpose is curing, and well-being.

Daphne Marlatt: I think a poetry reading that is a “great” poetry reading for me is one that not only interests me intellectually, but moves me. There is something intangible in that being moved, it is not simply emotional although one experiences it as an emotion, it has something to do with how the work addresses you in a very personal place. It is probably a complex of the emotional, the experiential on an intellectual level, like what seems in some ways familiar yet, also a stretch beyond the familiar way of thinking and also probably in some ways spiritual to use that word in a larger sense of where we are situated or how we are living in this life.

Ron Loewinsohn: When the poet speaks, his words are physically only air, yet they can afford us the most sensorially tangible of experiences.

Jason Camlot: When was the first time you ever heard a poem read out loud?

Howard Fink: I really can’t recall.

Stephanie Colburn: The first time I went to a poetry reading was in my high school cafeteria and um, I had a crush on Jessie Valentine, who was reading that night and um, it was almost like the experience of a high school dance, it was very sweet. He read this poem about falling in love and a ceiling fan and he did this hand gesture every time he talked about the ceiling fan. It would go like whoosh, whoosh, whoosh like that. (laughs) It was really goofy, but it was a nice way to showcase his talents. It was almost like he was wooing everybody, or I was wooed at least.

George Bowering: The first real poet I ever heard read a poem out loud happened when I had left the Air Force and had gone back to UBC and it was Steven… Steven… That guy that was… Oh! Steven… (slapping leg)…(laughs) The second one was Marianne Moore…Steven… That English guy who was a friend of Auden’s.

Jason Camlot: Spender?

George Bowering: Spender! Yeah, Steven Spender. Yeah. And during the reading he took a hanky out of here and so, I thought, “Oh, poets are these guys who put hankies up their sleeves.” (laughs) I heard of those people. Then, this was because—if you were—in those days, BBC poets would come in and jazz guys would come in. I mean, that’s also like the first time I got to hear Charles Mingus and so forth, right? But the third one was Kenneth Patchen. And I’d been reading Kenneth Patchen a couple years before that, and he was playing with a jazz band, right? (sighing) Oh! That just (snaps). That was so different, right? The other two were valuable experiences, right, before that, but when I heard that [Patchen reading with Jazz] it’s, “Okay, there’s my direction.” (laughs)

Diane Wakoski: My sophomore English teacher Gale Rowenson had just graduated from USC and she was full of exciting new ideas about teaching poetry, life etc. This was 1951-55, so this would be around 52-53, and I was a sophomore and at that time. Robinson Jeffers who is a California poet and who translated classic plays including Euripides’ Medea had gotten quite a lot of fame and his translation of Medea was playing on Broadway in New York with Jane Judith Anderson playing Medea. We had oral recordings, she had played records for us of Jane Judith Anderson and the rest of the cast reciting Medea and it was the most enthralling thing I had ever heard.

David McFadden: Yes, Yes! Grade 5. Um…we had a teacher who was sitting on his desk and um talking about the squirrels in his backyard and he was just a wacky guy and um, at one point he decided to make a…I am having some problems as you know. [The Grade 5 teacher read a poem by Robert Frost.] Yeah, so I was just thrilled. I thought. Oh my God! This is it! (laughing) I want to be a poet! There were about forty-five kids in the class and I am sure I am the only one who sort of caught on! (laughing) For some reason…!

Stephen Morrissey: I would have to go back and look it up.

Daniel Scott Snelson: The first poetry reading that first made an impression on me was (laughs) a delightful evening at Andy Lampert’s house in New York City. Um, I had been reading quite a bit of experimental and innovative poetry, but I had never seen something great. However, I was invited by Kenneth Goldsmith, my first Summer living in New York to visit uh, this garden in the middle of nowhere in Brooklyn for a poetry reading. It turns out it was Goldsmith reading from Fidget with Alan Licht playing the short wave radio. I was incredibly young, I didn’t know anyone there (laughs), but it turns out that the entire literati from New York had come out for this poetry reading. In fact, one of my favourite poets at the time was a man named Bruce Andrews and I thought that, um I was introduced to a man that was about Bruce Andrews’ age and was introduced to the man as Bruce so I assumed that it was Bruce Andrews because I knew he was friends with Kenneth Goldsmith who was reading so I treated him as Bruce Andrews for about five minutes singing his praise. Then he said, I think you have me confused with Bruce Andrews, in fact I am Bruce so and so, he was a painter not a poet at all, one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, the reading also left an impression, but that really left it’s mark (laughs) so I will leave it at that.

Daphne Marlatt: The first time I heard Charles Olson read which was at the 63′ [Vancouver Poetry] conference [was memorable]. There was definitely a huge presence, not just in terms of his physical presence, but in terms of the history and his very personal engagement with that history. The significance of it moved through him, through his voice and out to the audience. Something that interested me a great deal was because I had the book right in front of me, that he was reading from it was from the Maximus poems, and I could see that he would actually change some words while he was reading so the poem was never something that was dead on the page, it was always living and always up or rethinking while he was in the process of performing it.

Hodgson: I think the first time I heard poetry read out loud was at a show I assisted at in Montreal and I guess I was about seventeen or eighteen. It wasn’t very good poetry, I didn’t like it and that is probably one of the reasons I didn’t continue going to poetry readings.

Flash Card in Oral History Memory Booth: Why do you go to poetry readings?

David McGimpsey: By “you” I assume they mean me? Like why do “I” go to poetry readings? So the reason that I go to poetry readings is to hear other poets and so they won’t be mad at me if I don’t go. As the great Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t go to a guy’s funeral he won’t go to yours.” (laughing) The reason why you go to a poetry reading is, of course, to see me read; and that’s settled!

Sabine Bergler: I have just attended a poetry reading after a very lousy day. It is not something I do or regularly indulge in. I was struck by the fact of how informal many of the readers were and how many of the readings seemed to be engaging with the audience. What seemed to be more important than the text itself…was the poet’s performance, interaction with the audience. I have to think about the difference between the poet and the stand up comedian and possibly the performance artist.

Diane Wakoski: I have always listened to poetry, even when there were no poetry readings to go to.

Judith Hertz: I have been reading poetry silently and out loud to myself, to my children and to my classes, I teach here at the University. I had to as an undergraduate memorize quite a bit of poetry and my mother was able to remember well into her nineties all the poetry she used to read to me. I also teach a lot of poetry. So poetry is just a part of the metabolism of my day and I like to hear poets read their poetry. They don’t always read it as well as people who just read out loud, but they often have a presence in the line, a person, a face, a voice, a measure in their speech that makes one, the listener, hear it in a slightly different way and sometimes in an amazingly different way from reading it on the page. So…poetry readings have always been part of what I do, where I go and what I am interested in.

Diane Wakoski: My generation is the one that made it manifest that basically you have to hear poetry, it has to be the spoken word as well as what’s seen on the page. I listened to everything from Dame Edith Sitwell reciting her gorgeous poems to Yeats to T.S.Eliot to anything [I could find in the library]. Then, when I became an old person, I began to buy all the spoken records that I could get.

George Bowering: The writing of poetry and the publishing of poetry was secondary to the main event which was the speaking of poetry. We were kind of pleased with ourselves for saying such a thing, but it ran counter to the experience we were handed without too much care in high school. Before that the concept of a poet reading out loud was usually relegated to some kind of movie. You have all seen those movies with the travelling poet who was an alcoholic and steals your shirt right? They were always figures of fun, as most poets were in the popular culture. Again I consider myself extremely lucky to be the age I was and in the places I was when that was beginning to be taken seriously, the reading of poetry out loud.

bpNichol: Hugo Ball was kind of the daddy of us all, and he was kind of a very fine dadaist who lived in Switzerland during the first World War and sort of did the first sound poems. It was very strange, if you read Hugo Ball’s diaries, it’s rather fascinating because it was more or less, when he gave this sort of final public reading he got really carried away in the midst of a sound poem and kind of got thrown back into sort of a — how to put this — an earlier space in his mind. Anyways he went back and started remembering all sorts of things right back through his life doing this sound poem. As you read the diaries, there’s a real feeling he became totally terrified of what was happening to him. Because at that point he then just split and left the whole thing behind.

Diane Wakoski: I have always said that one of the worst readers, or for fifty percent of his readings, was Robert Creeley who was almost always drunk and therefore he mumbled. And he had this little voice anyways. Now he didn’t always do this because when he wasn’t doing that he was magnificent. Yet, I loved his readings bad or good because you see with the mistakes or the failings, you really see what goes into a poet’s voice.

Wanda O’Connor: It is the voice of the poet, through the voice of the poet that you come to understand the poem and the poet’s work.

Louis Dudek: I think I’m speaking for most people here.

Robert Duncan: He speaks in the first place in a voice which is impossible for himself to speak in.

Al Purdy: I could speak no Eskimo.

Phyllis Webb: I use objects just to speak for themselves.

Michael McClure: Let’s see what it sounds like.

bill bissett: speaking speaking / th eye is / speaking

Lionel Kearns: How’s that for sound? Can you hear that?

Robert Creeley: I really do feel that […] all the arts are moving into a situation where the agency is becoming less and less singular. I don’t mean necessarily that in some seminal sense, that everyone’s quote an artist. I mean, I don’t know what an artist is, in one way at all. But I think that the participation is becoming much more a situation of process and activity, and that it is becoming less and less evident as one singular isolation of person, and I realize in my own writing how much the previous condition had been my, my occasion. So, I may be reading these poems for the last time, in that sense. I’m certainly prepared to do so. I’m not at all interested in continuing an activity that may have much more experience or much more range of possibility than contemporary habits about it seem to imply.

Anthony Hecht: I guess a really violent change of pace is required.

Christopher Levenson: Last time I gave a reading, somebody knocked water all over it.

Jackson Mac Low: Earlier I had very strict rules governed by chance operations and so on, in reading these, well, in reading these kinds of simultaneous works. More and more I came to the, well I always had the principal that the most important thing was to listen hard to everything that was happening, including whatever was happening in the room, whatever’s happening outside, and so on.

Joe Oppenheimer: In a college in Brooklyn […] they had a lady faculty member as a cop and she listened to me read and she objected to only one word in the entire reading and that was “hard-on.”

Anthony Hecht: I had gone on this New England Tour a few years ago, and I began it in Maine. Well, I may have been misled, but I was told at the two or three colleges and universities where I read that Maine was a dry state, and I had so arranged my poems, completely unconsciously, that I had a whole bunch of them that all took place in bars, in bars altogether. So I had the feeling as I was reading — I couldn’t stop, you see — there I was, after the third poem, I felt that I appeared to be an obsessive alcoholic.

Andreas Schroeder: Right. Normally they hang you after a reading. Jesus.

Joseph Langland: I was on a reading tour, actually, when Kennedy was killed. And I was actually in an auditorium about to start reading these poems, when it was cancelled, because of the announced death of the president. I couldn’t have read them, but I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was just sitting there, and five minutes from starting time.

Kenneth Koch: I was very annoyed at a lot of my fellow poets who were going around, giving, in groups to colleges, giving poetry readings for peace. Now there were two things about this that annoyed me, three things. One was that I wasn’t doing it. But that, I think, was a minor thing. A second thing was that…who did they really think they were trying to convert, like college students who came to poetry readings? I mean, college students who come to poetry readings are not usually in favour of war. And in the second place, all the poems they read for peace were the sort of things that would make you want to go out and kill people, like “Lyndon Johnson, you fuck the pregnant woman who’s lying with her guts streaming out.” [laughter] And they weren’t, they didn’t really…they didn’t really seem like peace poems to me. I felt it was sort of exploitative on their part to do that.

Milton Kessler: I go very often to the anti-war readings.

Roy Kiyooka: They are very much occasional poems. They address themselves to the particular occasion of having been there.

Ted Berrigan: I actually tried to write a poem out of a very corny feeling that I’d had, which nevertheless is very genuine. It starts at a poetry reading in Ann Arbor, but it’s really about being in Ann Arbor and realizing I was leaving soon, and thinking about all the things that wouldn’t happen to me again, because this trip was going to be over. I also wrote it with the idea in mind of reading it at a poetry reading.

John Logan: I realize reading the poem now how dated it is.

Alden Nowlan: I have a very, very bad poem that I can’t resist reading.

Christopher Levenson: I always forget until I finish reading that poem that that last line is not self-explanatory.

Milton Kessler: I’ve never read this one before, nor is it finished, nor is it any good, as far as I can tell.

Robert Hogg: This poem bears reading, I think, but doesn’t really belong in the book.

Joe Rosenblatt: There’s a loathesome typographical error in here. That’s what happens.

George Bowering: Gee, there’s one I’ve never read before, I mean, out loud. I’m not going to anyway, heck with it.

Gary Snyder: It would be a great honour, really, to be eaten by a large, rare predator, and I can’t think of any way I’d rather finish my days than to give myself to a grizzly bear.

Henry Beissel: This is rather the beginning of something that I may never live to finish, the entire thing is supposed to have some 26 poems, of which you will hear the first two.

Joseph Langland: A great theoretical life, unfinished, has to be completed by someone else.

Stan Persky: Did I write this for this? Did I write this reading?

DG Jones: I’ll finish quickly…I seem to be running out of steam…I’m sorry, I’ve run out of steam.

David McGimpsey: Nothing lasts forever; except for a poetry reading.

Eli Mandel: Now I’m going to finish this reading.

John Wieners: It’s the end of the world.

Joel Oppenheimer: I always love the end of it.

Allen Ginsberg: Finish with a mantra.


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