A confluence of events had me thinking a lot about the act of performing poetry last week. Between Rattle‘s feature on the Performance Poetry Podcast and our AWP panel “Stagecoaching for the Page,” in which a group of cowboy and western poets discussed the on-stage aspects of their craft, I found myself on a two-hour plane flight with nothing to read but my own book. I’d bought a copy of Russell Edson’s recent collection of prose poems at the conference so I’d have something to read, but accidentally left it in my checked suitcase.
As I read American Fractal start-to-finish, really for the first time since it was published, I realized I’d been going about readings all wrong. I’ve always believed that between-poem banter is an important aspect of any poetry reading. It’s not so much about helping the audience access the complexities of the poem they’re about to hear — I hate nothing more than a self-important poet pointing out all of the references ahead of time, to make sure you understand their brilliance. It’s mostly just acting like a real person for a few seconds, and giving the minds in the room a chance to relax. Even the most quiet poems are intellectually intense, and the mental energy required to enjoy them is hard to sustain for 20 or 40 minutes without an occasional break. I always think of reading poetry as like snorkeling — it’s great to dive in an explore the vivid and alien world down there, but you have to remember to come up for air. If you can chat comfortably with the audience in between poems, preferably with a sense of humor or a little personality, it can really add to the experience — but regardless, you still have to give them time to breathe.
And that’s what I’d been doing for the two dozen or so readings I’ve done in the last year. Each poem has a little anecdote that goes along with it; sometimes I use those, other times I just riff off the cuff, but it’s all part of the show. Before reading “After Hopper,” I’ll talk about my class with formalist Robert Mezey, and how I found an anthology of nothing but poems written after Edward Hopper paintings. Before “Poem from the Homeland,” I warn them “turbofans” are a kind of jet engine, and it’s not just a goofy word for the crowd at the Rose Bowl. When I read “Cutlery,” I usually talk about working at the group home and then explain the extended metaphor. And so on.
What occurred to me last week, 30,000 feet over the high desert, was that this format, as pleasant as it is for the audience, really does the book a disservice. American Fractal is a series of simultaneously connected and disconnected vignettes about recurring patterns within different layers of the American psyche. The structure of the book is a fractal, even though the poems themselves are not — the form emerges as various phrases and ideas are recast in unexpected places. The poems are all echoes of each other (reflections in opposing mirrors), and when read in sequence, you can actually hear the echoes.
For example, in a little run around “Poem from Dark Matter,” which itself plays with ideas of light and darkness, fire and ice, the two preceding poems end with the lines “cool insistence” and “their heat.” Then the first word in the next poem after “Dark Matter” is “Iridescent.”
Or another: in “To Montevideo” the speaker says, “We were the hollow space/ a shell curls around.” The very next poem, “Fifty-Hour Online Gaming Binge,” concludes, “One finds a pearl, another just the shell.” The poems have nothing in common — different characters, different form (one’s a sonnet, the other free verse couplets) — but the shell repeats.
These things happen over and over again throughout the book — and as a book, that’s really what the book is about. But I realized that at readings, breaking up the poems with some friendly banter, the crucial sense of echo is completely lost. Thus divided, with no unifying plot or characters, the poems become individual poems, rather than a coherent collection.
What’s worse, I think talking about the genesis of each poem gives a false impression that there is a traditional cohesion — that the first person pronoun is a consistent I, rather than an evolving cast of narrators. Most of the poems are inspired by my life — where else would I find inspiration? — but the details are almost always fabricated; it’s more fiction than non-. When I explain where the poems came from, the sense of a narrative arc supersedes the broader formal structure where my argument really occurs.
Luckily, the day after my epiphany, I had an opportunity to test it out. Last Sunday I read at the Ruskin Art Club with Ernest Hilbert, and for the first time I ever, I didn’t talk at all between the poems. I set the book up and warned them that I wouldn’t be chatting, and then just dove straight to the bottom.
The results, honestly, were mixed. It’s fortunate for me that the book is full of tones and lengths and energy levels. It’s easy to mix in a short quiet poem with a longer, more dramatic piece, and I think that helped to keep the audience on their toes. I also tried to add an extra long pause between each poem, so that we could get a sense of the silence that surrounds life, or some such thing. As far as I could tell, everyone stayed engaged for the full 20 minutes — and that’s a pretty long breath. No one seemed at all bored.
But when I asked people afterward, a few mentioned that they miss the back-stories — that the stories are what makes going to readings better than just reading the book. And I agree with that.
So I’m still not quite sure what to do, going forward. If I had another book, that had a consistent narrative, or no narrative at all, then I’d be happy to talk half the time. But while reading American Fractal, I still feel compelled to do the book justice, and talking ruins the mood. If there’s a compromise, maybe it’s just to use even more time on the introduction — build a mountain of expectations and then plunge in with confidence.
I haven’t had any time to update recently, but I’ve got a few topics loaded in the chamber and ready to shoot — just need time to write them up, and time doesn’t come cheap this time of year. I’ll have an official count on Rattle Poetry Prize submissions by the end of the week, but we’ve already broken last year’s record (“even in this economy”) and still have a two-foot stack of hardcopy submissions to log. In the middle of this, we’ve decided to move to a new apartment, sacrificing some space and solitude for the ammenities of modern life. Who would have guessed their contest entries would spend time in a U-Haul?
I did have time to notice a bump in my Amazon sales ranking — shot up to #50,000 for the first time in a few months — so made a note try to figure out where that came from. And I think I just did… Googling around, I found this new review of American Fractal by Michael Turner on Growler. Thanks, Michael, your publicity paid for my coffee this morning (if I ever sell enough to trigger royalties)!
Growler is new to me, but two years old — a smartly designed and well-written compliment to the equally choice Barrelhouse magazine. One of my to-do posts is a list of other lit mags fans of Rattle might like, and Barrelhouse was already on the list. Anyway, Growler reviews first books of poetry, so if you’re looking for new poets, it’s a great place to start.
Michael Turner’s review is my favorite to come out yet. When I put the manuscript together, I worried that it would come across as a hodgepodge of poems, rather than a collected unit — that I hadn’t left enough clues to resolve the broader picture of the “American fractal,” as it were. Turner gets it, and I have no idea who he is, so I’m pretty sure I never explained it to him. In fact, he sometimes articulates the theme better than I can. Here’s the conclusion, read the whole review for the rest, obviously:
Many of Green’s speakers seem to desire to disappear, to re-work the equation for subtraction. It is the frustration caused by a world that fails to allow disappearance which provides this book with a convincing uncertainty. Green’s is a world where one cannot distinguish between the ending and the beginning simply by the sound of the applause.
p.s. The Odd Life of Timothy Green. Gotta try to say that phrase every once in a while, as part of a Google-Bomb Defense Shield. Haven’t seen any updates about that deadly movie, but it’s already creeping up the search rankings, and it’s still in rumor-phase.
Speaking of reviews, I was informed of, and then completely forgot to mention, this really nice review of American Fractal by Jeanne M. Lesinski on NewPages.com. Most fun for me is the paragraph where she talks about “The Bending of Birches,” which is really the first time I’ve seen anyone dig into the minutia of one of my poems, the way one might in an English class:
The poem mingles aural and visual music: The caesurae [unable to be reproduced here] audibly create rhythm, while visually recalling the fragments of the fractal that are repeatedly broken down into tinier fragments. Later, the viewer encounters a story within a story, which is another fractal aspect, as well as circular imagery (halos, reverberations, bends of backs and notes, spotlights, clusters), light (spotlights, halos, dust motes in track lighting), upward movement (buoyancy like wood, plucked up, bounce of the horsehair bow, lifting of leaves, swirling, fluttering). Throughout, Green has entwined the images that play so well off each other in various associations into beautiful, lingering poignancy.
I used to wonder, when encountering descriptions like these in textbooks, whether or not the poet or novelist had any idea that they were including these elements in their work, if it was added subconsciously, or if the essayist may have even been projecting things that don’t exist. I always speculated that it was probably a combination of three — the faintest of hints of intention reverberating in the echo-chamber of other minds. Now that I’m on the other side of things, I can confirm that’s mostly true.
The above review appeared last Wednesday on WPSU, NPR’s central Pennsylvania affiliate. The clip is from BookMark, a weekly book reviews show. This is just, I think, the second review of the book to reach the public, and the first time my name’s ever been mentioned on the radio.
The coolest part is hearing someone else who you’ve never met read some lines of your poem out loud — and then still hearing them as they sound in your head. Poetry works! Here’s how Maddox ends the review:
Indeed, as Timothy Green claims in ‘Hiking Alone’, perhaps all we ever want is ‘a little darkness to climb out of.’ In American Fractal, he provides the dark, the light, and a rope of words for climbing from one insight to another.
p.s. Marjorie Maddox has reviewed for Rattle in the past, but I only just discovered that she’s written a young adult book of baseball poems. How cool is that? Looking around a little more, the poems seem to be good, too: “…all hard-pitched hope outthrown, thrown out/of luck, of heart, of the hard heat of summer/and what won’t be.” If I’d read that in 8th grade, I would have gotten into poetry sooner!