Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A New Life for Old Words

At a recent reading here in Calgary, poet Stephanie Davis took the stage and announced that she planned to read to us from her notebook, in which she had pasted Yeats’ “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.” Davis mused that since the poem was about a young man coming of age, she thought it would be interesting to see how the poem came to life when read by a young woman. After reciting Yeats’ poem, Davis read a short story she had written about a terrible job interview she’d had, and the next reader was introduced.

It is rare to attend a public reading and hear a writer present a text they did not write themselves. Readings are often intended as a forum for writers to present new work and to attract an audience for their own creative practices, and to give the public a chance to hear new local writers. However, the rarity of writers who publicly present the writing of others means that the works of dead poets only regularly gets read aloud in academic settings, and the work of living poets only gets read aloud by the poet who wrote it.

The tendency of writers to present only their own work means that the sole ambassador a poem has is the writer herself—a poet cannot expect others who appreciate her work to share it with other audiences. Nor do poets have the opportunity to share work that they think would make for interesting performances. The work of dead poets is entombed along with the writers, only dug up for Intro to Poetry classes, and then only if the poet is canonical enough to have been anthologised. But, as Davis’ reading highlights, new voices can re-contextualize work, allowing for a new experience of an old poem. Furthermore, the requirement that the presenter of a poem also be the writer suggests that performers who do not write poetry have few opportunities to give public readings that could be both strong and thought provoking.

I don’t mean to suggest that poets should be reduced to putting on a cover show of the Top 40 of poetry. But if a writer can deliver a moving or provocative reading of a poem written by someone else, I don’t believe the writer does the audience any disservice through their reading. By exclusively performing original work, much poetry that could make for great readings stays bound in books and organized on shelves. Why not let it out once in a while?

Helen Hajnoczky recently completed her BA Honours in English and creative writing from the University of Calgary, where her research focused on feminist avant-garde poetics. Her work has appeared in Nod, fillingStation, and Rampike magazines, as well as in a variety of chapbooks. She is the current poetry editor of fillingStation magazine.