Thursday, April 9, 2009

Koshin, Chodo, Fanny Howe and the nature of poetry readings

Last night I read at the Village Zendo, eleven floors up above Broadway, in Soho. It got me to thinking about the climate of poetry readings, the atmospheres in which they take place. At the Zendo, there's a meditation session an hour or so before the reading, and a number of people came and sat then stayed on. The room had an almost palpable quality of calm, as if it held the after-effects of deep, steady attention.

Of course poetry readings are generally quiet(ish), but I was very aware of the difference. How I usually find myself working to gather in and steady an audience's attention, and how, especially in college settings where I'm reading to young people, there's usually some jostle or bit of distraction going on someplace. At the Zendo, I felt that I was placing the poem into the space in front of me, where it sort of hung for a moment as it was being taken into a deeply receptive listening. One of the effects of this is that the reading becomes about the poem itself, or about poetry, more than it seems about the reader. It's not as if you use your personality or the force of your will to put the poem across, but more like setting it out into the room, lightly, onto a current that's already moving.

This was completely lovely, and also the best way to hear the poems of my co-reader Fanny Howe, who read from THE LYRICS, a richly meditative collection that grows out of months spent in a Benedictine monastery.

And speaking of monks, our host was Koshin Paley Ellison, the sweetest and most contagiously cheerful of men, and he was joined later on by his husband Chodo. What could be more delightful than two big loving playful monks?


Laura said...

Poetry readings need milk and cookies, and a quiet rug area, like in elementary school. Maybe pre-poetry meditation functions as the adult equivalent?

Unknown said...

Its funny you talked about reading to young people here. As a young person, I feel that we are so inundated with distraction that there is this need in my own writing to cut, punch, slice through the audience's "firewall" protection against noise.I was recently working with high school students and immediately felt this energy of indifference before i said a word. even though i was the "featured" performer i had to earn their audience.

i think in this zendo space, the audience still has to be earned, but the meditation gave a raw vulnerability to listen to words and silence.

You talked about poem's being zen-like in their existence at your reading...where do the poems we speak go after they leave our tongues...

Do they manifest directly into the body like a needle, or simply add to the air pollution?

great blog!

Mark Doty said...

Thanks Mozart. I think that at the Zendo's there's a tacit assumption that what is heard will be worth hearing -- that giving your attention will bring rewards. At least with some members of college audiences, it feels like the opposite; probably this poetry reading is not going to hold my interest or matter to me. I don't want to generalize about younger audiences, because in fact everywhere there are people who are eager for "the news from poetry."

But I also feel that I regularly confront those kids who I doubt are even aware that they're communicating their indifference. Sometimes I wonder if what feels to me like distractability (whispering to each other, checking your phone messages, shifting your body in your chair) in fact IS their attentiveness -- that might be as good as it gets! Have we damaged attention-giving that much? It's s serious challenge for a person who wants to connect with audiences, to figure out how to respond to that. Obviously, this feeling is intensified by National Poetry Month, when I'm talking to many groups of students...

David@Montreal said...

Mark, 'attention' is much of what Zen practice is all about, so your description of your reading really resonated with me.
It sounds like the whole event was a very privileged evening.

What you might not be aware of is that there is a direct link between the Village Zendo and Green Gulch Farm which figures in two of your recent posts. Both shangas are in the lineage of the great Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, and I'd recommend 'Crooked Cucumber' by David Chadwick if you want some interesting reading.


Rachel Dacus said...

I've had similar experiences at poetry readings by accomplished readers, even without benefit of advance meditation. I think one of the great functions of poetry - both read aloud and read silently - is to expand the silent space of reverent attention we all carry within. Poetry is about heightened attention, but not all readers can create that atmosphere in which they composed. It's a double gift when they can. I'll never forget those readings, though I may forget the actual poems.

Anonymous said...

Having recently completed (or survived) my first poetry reading, I can relate to "placing the poem into the space in front of me, where it sort of hung for a moment." I've long been a writer, but performing a piece, allowing it to breathe, allowing it to take on new life in the spirit of spoken word is magical. The poem actually rises up and becomes its own, well, it's own being. If you want to see the power of poetry, read a poem aloud.

To see your words reach out and wrap around another person and pull forth emotions and memories is something special. I urge all poets and writers and artists to find a medium to share their work in public.

I have to say... I'm hooked.

It takes practice, but I'll be back in front of a crowd before too long. The poems, the only children I'll ever have, demand it.