Thursday, September 22, 2011

Poetry Reading as Bridge and Connection

Language is always available, poet Kay Ryan has said. She purposely did not say for what.

On Tuesday evening this week, the "what" became bridge and connection. 

I was privileged to be offered several months ago by artist Judith HeartSong the use of her lovely gallery space in Glen Echo, Maryland, for a poetry reading. To prepare, I wrote copy for announcements, posted invitations by e-mail and event listings via social media sites, ordered copies of my collection Neruda's Memoirs: Poems, created a program, made and practiced the selections of poems for the reading, and purchased, on the day of the reading, ice and refreshments. I hoped for a good turnout. 

It's never possible to know in advance how an audience will respond to a reading, what effects, if any, one's words will have, and certainly not whether any books will be sold. When my collection came out at the end of January, I remember telling someone that if my words make a difference to even one person, then the book will exist for all the right reasons. Tuesday night, words worked . . . in many ways and for all the right reasons.

The intimate space lit by candles set a mood sustained throughout the evening. I read nine poems from the collection, plus a selection of new work, with the aim of showing something of the breadth of subject matter and approach. My poems "Hazardous Duty: Ode to My Kitchen" and "See Me, Let Me, Be Me Barbie" brought the laughter I had hoped for and "Reading Goodnight Moon" the nods that every mother in the room could make. New work, such as "Consider the Pomegranate", a poem about the revolution in Egypt, received praise.

But it was not until the conclusion of the half-hour of reading, when the floor opened up to responses and questions, that I knew that my words had created a bridge for everyone to share something of the experience of being in the same room. One person asked how I knew the different members of the group. Two of the attendees then discovered they had grown up in the same town in Pennsylvania. A listener intrigued by my comments about being part of several communities of poets online, especially the one that holds poetry jams on Twitter, wanted to know if she might share with her granddaughter who reads and writes poetry the links to those groups. Another, one of two other artists in attendance, got to see again for the first time in five years the owner of a gallery where he had exhibited his work. Someone else, also a painter, remarked on the visual imagery in my poems and how different it was to hear instead of read poems. Her comments sparked discussion of the creative process. A response to the cancer-related poems in the collection, which I mentioned in describing how some of the poems came to be written, led to wonderful talk about use of poetry, music, and visual art in therapy, with one attendee sharing her experience of using the arts with children who had been affected directly by the September 11 attacks. This was a diverse group of listeners of wide-ranging backgrounds and yet all were finding common ground to share by virtue of having come to hear me read.

The evening proved special for me not only because of the deeply satisfying responses I received to my work (I even sold some copies of my book!), the engaging, enriching discussion that followed the reading, or a subsequent invitation to read in another gallery space, but also because the audience included someone I was meeting in person for the first time. She was someone with whom I have had a deep online connection for three or four years; our  connection first formed when her late husband began writing about his experience of cancer. He left behind a virtual community that exists today because of his wife,  my friend L., who nurtures and sustains what is no less real for existing online. Meeting L. in person Tuesday night, feeling the warmth of her long hug, proved how what happens online can matter deeply to what's experienced offline. Beginning with L.'s husband's words, a bridge began to be constructed; it was completed with our meeting in Judith's gallery.

I said at the top of this post that if my words make a difference to even one reader, then my book exists for all the right reasons. What I've since realized is how much of a difference my own words have made for me, because in sharing them  — first virtually, then in print, and, now, aloud at the reading — they have brought me the gift of L.'s friendship and the fellowship of all the people in the gallery space Tuesday evening. Connections were made throughout that room that night; we all crossed our different bridges and, once on the other side, exchanged a sharing of words that created community.

Neruda's Memoirs: Poems (T.S. Poetry Press, 2011) is available in print and in a Kindle edition.

Neruda's Memoirs: Poems on FaceBook

Escape Into Life Feature, February 16, 2011 (A selection of four poems from the collection is published there.)

Video of Title Poem, "Neruda's Memoirs" (This video was made by Diane Walker.)

Laura Boggess on "Waiting on Neruda's Memoirs" at The Wellspring, a 12-Part Fictional Review (Part I begins here.)

Chris Enstad Review at The High Calling, April 4, 2011 (This review originally appeared in Englewood Review of Books, March 11, 2011.)

Cendrine Marrouat Review in Canada Examiner, June 22, 2011

Peggy Rosenthal Review of Neruda's Memoirs at Image Journal's Good Letters Blog, April 15, 2011

Please consider joining me and three other contributors to the charity anthology Oil & Water and Other Things That Don't Mix (LL Publications, 2010) — Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson Brown, Ginger McKnight-Chavers, and Laura G. Gschwandtner — on October 9 for "Make Your Support Matter: A Reading to Help the Gulf Region". Details herehere, or here.


Louise Gallagher said...

Oh Maureen, this is such an uplifting and inspiring post.

And, it is a joy to read -- not just because your event was such a super success, but because, it makes me feel happy to know you received the recognition, support, applause you so deserve.

Reading this -- I'm smiling and my fingers are dancing on the keyboard as I type.

Way to go!

Whoo Hooo!


Bravo! Bravo!

Encore! Encore!

Ami Mattison said...

What a beautiful post, Maureen! For me, my words written in solitude tend to provide a much-needed catharsis. But it's the connection with others who are listening and offering their own meanings and experiences that I find most edifying...and humbling. Keep sharing your work!

Anonymous said...

i like hearing of the comments and connections for you and the others. wonderful!

you just never know what words will do.

S. Etole said...

What a very special time for all of you making connections and sharing your lives. So glad you were blessed, Maureen, as you are such a blessing.

Ruth said...

This post says much about you. A book for even one person, yes. The reading setting sounds beautiful, and I'm sure your poems filled the space with depth and pleasure. The Q & A, and the connections among you all, are wonderful. Your meeting with L., that is profound, and validates what I, too, feel in this cyber-blog world of friends. Terrific stuff.

Liz said...

What a beautiful experience! The right people were there for your reading, and that is always such a blessing. And congratulations on the invitation for another reading.