Last Friday, sixty or so noir-clad poetry bugs gathered in the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House to hear two poets read. The first was Dorothea Lasky, a bundle of whimsy with an MFA in Poetry from UMass Amherst and a head of distinctly Dr. Seussean curls. The other was Eileen Myles, an ageless wordsmith from Boston, author of countless poetry collections and possibly one of the coolest people this side of the Mason Dixon. Both poets presented an assortment of new poems and also read from their most recent books, Thunderbird by Lasky and Snowflake/different streets by Myles.
I attended this reading with the intention of writing a more standard review of each collection, but upon Ms. Lasky first opening her mauve-stained lips, I knew that the reading called for a different kind of commentary.
Reading a book of poems alone, silently, is how we most often receive poetry. We take note of the visual clues on the page that help to guide our rhythm and perception of the work; but ultimately, the poems enter our brains via this strange portal where how the words look truly affects how they sound, and finally what they mean, more than any other type of writing. It doesn’t always happen that the way you imagine a poem to sound will be how the poet actually presents it; and this surely didn’t happen last night. I was impressed that both Lasky’s and Myles’s poems became brand new, and I think better, thanks to each of their extremely different, equally evocative “poem voices.”
Dorothea Lasky has a speaking voice that is so high-pitched and clear, it seems as if she never smoked or cursed a day in her life (though, as of Friday night, I can attest to the fact that at least 50% of that is highly false… see pg. 4 of Thunderbird). She is giggly and self-deprecating, making quips between poems to get the audience as comfortable as she seems to be. The voice she assumes once she starts reading possesses the same high-pitched, almost child-like quality, but suddenly increases in volume by 10 fold. Then most notably, her inflection takes on an alarming pattern where it sort of sounds like a 4th grader reading a paragraph about the solar system out loud to the class. Hearing this voice read lines like “I care for monsters/But only because I am one” and similarly simple and hard-hitting lines that riddle Thunderbird, changes the work. Lines that initially may appear dramatic or angry on the page, take on humility and occasional irony. At first listen, Lasky’s “poem voice” was so different from what I expected that I found it a bit jarring. A few poems in, however, I wanted to immediately re-read her book, this time with an ear for how endearing and unique Thunderbird can sound.
Below is a link to Lasky reading a poem from her book called Who To Tell. I recommend reading the poem silently and then having a listen.
Juxtapose Lasky’s high-pitched, performative “poem voice” with Myles’s gravelly, colloquial one for a mesmerizing study on how different poets choose to present their work. I attended a reading of Eileen Myles’s over the summer where she revealed that she often writes poems in her head while driving; so, her process of putting the poem on the page is sort of a backwards translation from aural to visual. I can’t speak for Lasky, but for Myles, how the poem sounds is a huge part of the equation. This becomes very clear when she reads.
Myles’s husky and understated speaking voice establishes upon first listen that this ain’t her first West Village rodeo. She reads her poems breezily and conversationally; you can tell she’s used to interacting with her poems off the page. She also reads quite quickly, but with such a cool self-assuredness, that even if her words flew by too fast for you to catch them, you find yourself nodding in comprehension. Most distinctly, as Myles reads poem after poem, a strong Boston accent surfaces, which is uncharacteristic of her every day speaking voice. This is not intentional, she admits. The accent slips in and grows thicker as she gets deeper into the experience of reading. This unique addition to her already colloquial voice gives simple lines like “For the most compelling birthday party I’d been to in a while I bought three cards,” a jolt of charm, due to how those “ar” sounds so patently feature the Boston accent.
Here is a video of Eileen Myles reading from Snowflake/different streets. See if you can detect all the awesome qualities of her “poem voice,” and how they add to your experience of the work.
This wasn’t the case on Friday, but I have certainly heard and been disappointed by writers that read work, which I loved on the page, aloud to an audience (an example would be Augusten Burroughs… sad). Not all experiences with “poem voices” at a reading will end well. But the role of the “poem voice” does add a fascinating element to the medium, putting poetry at a crossroads between a visual art, a literary art, and a performing art.
Below is a link to the schedule of events at the Writers House this year. Free readings, free wine, free food for thought.
By: Amanda Montell, Assistant Poetry Editor