Fractal Performance

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.


  1. Hey Tim,

    I find that the most important thing, when I read, it to bring new material. Even if I’m going out of town where no ones heard me. Even my best pieces get old to me and I think the audience senses it.
    I look at poems like champange they’re best when you first uncork them, but after reading them several times they go flat. I try to make it a rule of thumb to have all new poems when I’m featured.
    Dave Ochs

  2. That’s a good suggestion, Dave, and I agree — but when you’re on what passes for a poetry book tour, you’ve kinda gotta stick to the book. It was a Red Hen event, so it’d feel inconsiderate to read non-Red Hen poems.

  3. You know, I prefer to read withuot inter-poem patter, myself, and have only started to do it because audience members have said they like to hear the backstories, references, etc. When I hear a poet read, I just want to hear the poems. I don’t want to hear about the grandmother/cat/walk-in-the-park that inspired it. But I think I’m in a minority that way.
    Maybe you could explain a bit about your book at the beginning of a reading, telling audiences to listen for those “echoes.” I think that would be useful…

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