Poetic License

Two poets diverge in a yellow wood (read: a local bookstore)

Last Saturday, Collected Works Bookstore hosted the second fall reading series of Muse Times Two, curated by Dana Levin and Carol Moldaw. In this reading, poets Gary Jackson and Gabrielle Calvocoressi read selections of their unpublished and published work.

Part I: Gary Jackson

You wouldn't necessarily expect a Saturday afternoon poetry reading to draw a large audience, but it did. When I walked into Collected Works Bookstore, the majority of the chairs were already occupied. A half-dozen people were ordering last-minute teas and coffees before the reading began, while others stood around chatting.

As Jackson approached the microphone and introduced himself, he exuded sincere, self-effacing energy—as though he recognized the importance of reading poetry to an audience, but also felt somewhat reluctant to do it.

Comic books are something of an obsession for Jackson, and he has transformed them into an untapped poetic niche. Jackson takes superheroes and villains, and the environments in which they exist, and plugs them into his poetry.

It's an intriguing technique. By distancing himself from everyday reality through the use of superheroes and comic book lore, Jackson can approach serious subject matter from new angles and with greater freedom. For instance, he explores the subject of racial identity by writing about mutants from X-Men, instead of simply talking about the experience of being black. His subgenre's disarmingly cartoonish setting also allows him to bring more explicit subject matter to his audience with uncommon directness.

Jackson delivered his poems without affectation and virtually no physical gesturing. His timing was deliberate, and the freshness of his final lines gave some of them some real kick. One of his more humorous poems—"Origins of Memory," in which the Joker from Batman waxes philosophical—ends with some particularly striking closing lines:

Memory is in the killing.

But the past always slips loose
Until I'm the last olive in the martini,
And I'm used to being dry.

If only I could remember
The moment before I fell in
And cast the old life off––

Why I'm incomplete,
The crack in every smile,
The black globe in every eye.

Part II: Gabrielle Calvocoressi
Calvocoressi had technical difficulties with her flight into Albuquerque, which, unfortunately, made her over an hour late for the reading. Some people left, but the majority of the crowd stayed and waited for her. When Calvocoressi did arrive, she apologized profusely and strode right up to the microphone. She was greatly appreciative to those who stayed, and had even called the bookstore on her way over, graciously promising that she would give the reading even if only one person decided to stay.

Calvocoressi read with extroversion and self-confidence. However, she read a handful of poems whose subject matter was evasive due to an unbalanced and eccentric delivery. To put it plainly, where Jackson delivered his poems in a calm and affectless manner, Calvocoressi's delivery was vocally unpredictable and at times over the top. Ultimately, the distracting reading diminished the poems' impact.

At first, Calvocoressi's voice had a singsong quality—one word would rise, and the next would fall. Then, somewhere in the middle of the reading, she careened through her lines at such a clip that it was difficult to hold onto more than a word or two. Finally, toward the end, she oscillated between reading incredibly quickly to incredibly slowly. Calvocoressi's speed and tone changed from poem to poem in a way that didn't indicate creative versatility, but rather an uncertainty or lack of awareness in her own voice.

All art is subjective; what one person dislikes, another will love. However, at readings like these, the artist's voice and reading style must combine to engage the audience. When I read some of Calvocoressi's poems before attending the reading, I found them very strong—on paper. When I heard Jackson read out loud, I found his poems even more engaging than when I read them in silence.

The next Muse Times Two will take place on December 6 at Collected Works.

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