Sunday, August 12, 2012

Community Poetry Reading

Lisa Vihos reads from her new chapbook.
We've all been to poetry readings before. You know...the poet has a new book out, so she reserves the stage at a local coffee house and proceeds to read her favorites from the new collection.  It's forty-five minutes of one continuous voice droning on, poem after poem, occasionally interrupted up by a story about the inspiration for a particular piece or the process of writing a specific poem. It always makes me sleepy, despite consuming the coffee house fare.  I just can't pay attention, even when the poems are good.  It's too monotonous.

Not surprisingly, then, I don't generally go to these types of readings -- I just can't listen to that many poems in one sitting, not when they're read by one person. Maybe it's a product of being raised on MTV, but I need breaks in the action in order to maintain my focus. Without physically seeing the poems, I even have trouble processing the content sometimes.  (OK, often.)

I offer all of this information just to make sure that you, dear reader, know who you're dealing with here.  The fact that I'm about to praise a poetry reading -- in fact, call for more poetry readings -- should be remarkable given all that I've told you.

You see, last night I attended a poetry reading unlike any other I'd ever been to in the past.  Stoneboat editor Lisa Vihos organized a reading of work from her new chapbook, The Accidental Present.  She called it a "community poetry reading," and it truly was.  Although all of the work was Lisa's, she only read maybe three or four poems.  The others were read by a yoga teacher, an art center docent, a geography professor, a mom, a finance guy, a photographer, the owner of a voice-over company -- and yes, a couple of poets, too. The readers were Lisa's friends, coworkers, and neighbors, and the result was that a good cross-section of the Sheboygan-area community was on stage at Paradigm Coffee & Music last night.

Many of the readers prefaced their poem by saying, "I've never done anything like this before..." and then proceeded to read beautifully.  All of these self-proclaimed non-poets made poetry more accessible to me, also a non-poet...and, I think, to others.  A group of teenagers in the back corner looked up from their laptop screens to listen.  Folks who had clearly come to Paradigm for reasons other than poetry clapped for each reader and stuck around even after finishing their coffee.  One such Paradigm patron even stuck around after the reading to talk with Lisa and learn more about her work.  It seems to me that the poems resonated with a lot of people who wouldn't ordinarily pay attention to a poetry reading, and I don't think that would have happened if Lisa had been the only one at center-stage.

Over and over, Lisa said, "It's so great to hear my poems in all of these different voices!"  I couldn't agree more.  Having such a variety of readers (age, gender, experience, style) gave The Accidental Present a lot more texture than it would have had if Lisa was the only one reading.  We saw everything from hesitation to hand gestures, and the cumulative effect was that the poetry came to life.

After the reading, I chatted with poet Georgia Ressmeyer, whose work has twice appeared in Stoneboat and who was one of the evening's featured readers.  She said that when her next book comes out, she'd like to do a community-style reading, too.  It's so much more dynamic, she noted, than the standard reading -- and so much more well-attended, too. Paradigm was packed, not only with Lisa's friends and supporters, but with the readers' friends and supporters, too.  To have that many people come out  to enjoy poetry on a gorgeous summer Saturday evening was nothing short of remarkable.  I hope that Georgia does have this kind of reading, and I hope that others follow suit.  In other words, I hope Lisa has started a trend.  I think this could really be a way to make poetry readings more palatable to the non-poets among us (including yours truly).  No, that's not even right.  I think this could be a way to make poetry less intimidating to the non-poets and poets alike.  If the kindergarten teacher or the doctor or the firefighter can read and enjoy a poem, then so can the rest of us.  Right?

Kudos to Lisa for not only having such an excellent idea, but for executing it.  As so many people said last night, Lisa is a true gift to Sheboygan.  She has brought poetry to the Sheboygan area in so many ways -- through her innovative reading, for helping to transform Stoneboat from an idea into reality, and by bringing 100,000 Poets for Change to our community.  I hereby proclaim Lisa Vihos the unofficial Poet Laureate of Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

Click here to order your copy of Lisa's new chapbook, The Accidental Present ($14), from Finishing Line Press, or click the "buy now" button below to order a copy of Lisa's first chapbook, A Brief History of Mail ($10), from Pebblebrook Press (an imprint of Stoneboat).

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