Bob Hicok and Jamaal May
"Lively" or "entertaining" are not the first words that come to mind when one thinks of most poetry readings. Most are not remembered as fun. I love them, but they're just not. Revealing the depths of spirit, or giving voice to the complexities of personal experience—yes. Those attending poetry readings usually expect something meaningful; they are meant to be meaningful, you might say. That expectation, the relative simplicity of the format, and what is therefore required of an audience (crystallized in a cooing murmur, that "Mmmm" of recognition or agreement that follows a particularly well-received poem) all are key aspects of a poetry reading. What's not to love? Many or at least a few people sitting attentively and listening, hoping to be surprised and moved. Yet for some in the crowd such an event remains a serious business—mainly a duty best shared, if it must be shared, collectively by the assembled sensitive. Now, the seriousness of most poetry readings does not preclude deep enjoyment or even joyousness sometimes. Recently a former student contacted me to say she had just attended a poetry reading by Irish Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney at the Art Institute of Chicago. There is no poet living today who conveys a greater dignity or gravity, and yet he was far from being off-putting or humorless. "It was marvelous!" my student exclaimed. She said Heaney was so much better in person, and while reading his poetry, than when she had first heard him, in our classroom, in a recorded interview on News Hour about his Beowulf translation. I happily responded by saying the most obvious thing possible: "Yes, of course!"
I count myself fortunate in the extreme that I too have attended readings like this one and have been transported, have left feeling similarly thrilled. But they still weren't fun, exactly. They may have been something far more important, and almost certainly rarer, but they weren't that. Even with the best-case-scenario poetry reading, you'd be a fool to expect cheering, let's say, or laughter. If there's cheering, the poet has probably found herself mistakenly at a college sporting event rather than her appointed lecture hall somewhere else on campus. And if there's laughter, the poet is probably onstage and reading, unknowingly, with his zipper down.
Thanks to serendipities of time and place, I was able to attend the latest poetry reading in Georgia Tech's nationally recognized year-long series. (Other visitors this year include Naomi Shihab Nye, Michael Dickman, and Kim Addonizio.) The two poets reading that night, Bob Hicok and Jamaal May, could hardly differ more in writing style or style of delivery, but both were terrific and well worth the hearing. And yes, there was laughter and cheering, so let it never be said again that these are incontrovertibly foreign elements of a poetry reading. It was an improbably fun event. Both Hicok and May are poets with unique voices and visions. Both are worth knowing more about—if they are not giving readings near you anytime soon, then pick up their books, a couple of which I will recommend below. In the meantime, it'll be my pleasure to capture as best as I can, as if from a silent distance, the reading itself.
Not knowing Atlanta well, I tentatively made my way to Tenth Street and the Institute of Paper Science and Technology, which seemed a fitting location for a poetry reading. Thomas Lux, who holds a distinguished writing chair at Georgia Tech, and whose new book, Child Made of Sand, is just out, announced the memorial occasion for the evening, the Adam Stephens Night Out for Poetry, in honor of a victim of a drunken driver. He introduced the first reader, Bob Hicok, by referring to Hicock's Michigan background, how he worked for a tool & die company in the automotive industry, and how his poems feature "electrical associations" and "constant surprises that always turn out to seem inevitable."
To hear Hicok's poems, read in the author's dry way, is to ride a roller coaster of successive subjects, of recurring "meta" moments that comment on the poem-in-progress itself, and of wild shifts where the tone suddenly drops or loops into what could easily be a different poem. To illustrate this hard-to-define quality, consider one of the first poems Hicok read, "In Michael Robins's class minus one," from his 2007 collection This Clumsy Living. The poem presents an interview with the Chicago River: "He asks, why did you fill the boy with your going? / I didn't know a boy had been added to me, the river says. / Would you have given him back if you knew? / I think so, the river says, I have so many boys in me, / I'm worn out stroking eyes looking up at the day." That mix of the comic and cartoonish with the macabre and menacing feels characteristic of Hicok's writing, and somehow it often arrives at a place of great tenderness as well. For those unfamiliar with Hicok's poetry at the reading, his quiet, thoughtful delivery and casual appearance (jeans and a brown t-shirt) may have at first belied the energetic range of expression on display in This Clumsy Living. One poem's speaker, having just received a haircut, can speak with childlike sensory directness; his shorn head feels as if "my skin is eating peppermint, my head is tingly" while elsewhere a more direct approach conveys powerfully the anxiety of one speaker about the health of his beloved: