(Guest post by Rachel Dacus)
My poetry group was in a restless mood. They wanted to change up the routine. Someone suggested that instead of reading our own poems, we pass our poems around the circle and have someone else read them, then pass them back and the poet read his or her poem. At first, it seemed like a hokey idea, just a time waster, but the results surprised everyone.
For some, our own poems seemed strange and full of things we hadn’t consciously put in. For me, it affirmed the fact that the poem, ultimately, belongs to the reader, not to its author. It also made me realize that some elements of a poem appear unconsciously, yet are fully evident to someone else.
For others in our group, the reading clarified the fact that we all can work harder at presenting our poems aloud. Some of the readers were stunningly good at interpreting someone else’s poem where they might be not so spectacular when reading their own. Perhaps modesty, or stage fright, accounts for it. But we all found that no one can find all the possible interpretations for a poem. And the better the poem, the more full of double meanings and layers of significance.
In many cases, the poet’s own reading was disappointing after hearing someone else’s interpretation. I certainly felt that way about my poem – that a reader who had never even seen my poem before found subtleties of meaning I hadn’t been aware of. Even in cases where a poet wasn’t particularly skilled reader, interpreting someone else’s poem became an interesting exercise that opened up ideas about the meaning in the poem that surprised its author.
The experience of hearing poems interpreted by others made me thoughtful about the mysteries of poetry. I marveled that someone could find nuances in my poem that I know I didn’t deliberately layer in. I enjoyed hearing two very different interpretations of the same poem, appreciating as I did that poetry dwells in complexity and ambiguity. And finally, I decided that I would listen to a lot of poetry read aloud.
After that, I experimented with a poet friend, getting together to read poems to each other, then exchange and read each other’s poems aloud. We found it very helpful in critiquing the poems to hear the other person’s reading, revealing their choices for emphasis and line and stanza breaks.
It wasn’t until I found Whale Sound that I could continue to listen to contemporary poems read by someone other than the author. Other zines should try this. It’s a fantastic way to open up a poem and allow it to travel, and to let the author hear it breathe.
(Rachel blogs at Rocket Kids.)