There is something about poetry readings that I've always found slightly off-putting. It's not the poets or the poems; I can usually be counted on to be quite civil to most of them. No what usually gets to me are the audiences.
Oh I'm sure that most people at a reading have come to listen to the poetry and I have no problem with that. No it's the ones who have come for the "event" that usually get up my nose. The two types that I find the most aggravating are the ones who feel that everyone has really come to see them so they have to be part of the show, and the ones who act like they're doing everyone a huge favour by showing up for the reading.
The former sit up close to wherever the poets are set up and have to make noises of some sort before, during or after the poem and sometimes if you're really unlucky all three. There's the murmur of agreement that shows they approve of the choice of poem or the subject matter, which is a close cousin to the exclamation of disbelief, and finally the strident laugh at something only they find funny.
The latter has either accompanied the first type or is sitting in close enough proximity that they can work in counter point to each other. When the first is silent the second can make small harrumphs of disquiet to show how much of a waste of their time this truly is, complain about the quality of the coffee being served, and whisper to whoever is unfortunate enough to be sitting beside them all about the really wonderful reading they went to the last time they were in San Francesco.
So I don't get to hear or see much poetry being, which is a shame, because good poetry can really be brought to life by being read by the person who wrote it. When you hear the writer's inflection, or see the expression on his or her face, and listen to the tone of their voice, so much that never makes it onto the page is revealed.
Which is why I sent inquiries about a review copy to the Perceval Press about a new release they are currently offering. 3 Fools 4 April is a CD/DVD set of a poetry reading given by Scott Wannberg, Hank Mortensen, and Viggo Mortensen in support of the Beyond Baroque Foundation in Venice California. I would be able to see and hear three poets performing their work and not have to deal with the usual drawbacks.
Of the three the only one who's poetry I'm familiar with is Viggo Mortensen's having reviewed an earlier work of his quite a number of years ago, Coincidence Of Memory, and been very impressed by both his poetry and his photography. He's also a fair hand at acting, so I was interested to see what he'd do with his poetry.
As the DVD, with a few alterations, pretty much duplicates the CD I decided to listen first, then watch and listen. I also hoped that by listening I would be able to obtain a level of impartiality toward the three men by creating the illusion of anonymity and be able to judge their presentation on what they did not who they are.
One thing I appreciated right off the bat with both the CD and the DVD was the format that the three men decided to follow of informally following one after the other with no fanfare or build up. Each poet would introduce what he was going to read, offer a preamble if required, and start reading.
Listening to forty-one poems is a rather overwhelming prospect even when some are no longer then twenty-five to thirty seconds. If it had only been one poet reading that many pieces it could never have worked. But having three distinct voices to listen too meant there was sufficient variety in tone and style to keep you interested.
Scott Wannberg reads like a roller coaster ride, climbing and descending hills and valleys of emotion with us hanging on for dear life. Either you're laughing hysterically, screaming enthusiastically, or shivering silently dependant on what peaks he's had us scale and how deep he has plummeted us in the descent.
There are two of his poems that stick out in my memory from both the CD and the DVD. First was the short poem "Hunter's Anonymous" which is a beautiful joke at the expense of Dick Cheney's hunting skills, or lack there of. As this was only the second piece I had heard from Scott, and his second comedic piece of the disc, I wondered how his bruising delivery would sound with a more emotional work.
The answer came when he read a piece about making a mad dash across the state to be at the bedside of his mother before she died. It was only then that I heard the emotion that hid behind what some might call bluster, but is truly an over abundance of feeling that just can't be held within the confines of a normal sized voice, and that has to be let out in some form or another.
In contrast to Scott, Viggo's son Hank offers a nice respite from turbulence. His poems are intelligent and show signs of what must be a lighting quick humour. His first poem "Freedom Fighter" is a brilliant piece that makes use of the words freedom and fighter to create a meaning contrary to our normal interpretation and expectations.
The second piece of his that caught my attention was "second chance, give or take a few". It was a very witty and intelligent take on a typical utopian political conversation "let's get rid of all the borders and live in peace and harmony". His reading showed a fine ear for timing, and his handling of the subject matter showed intelligence and perception plus something I consider essential for a successful poet; an ability to laugh at himself.
While both Scott and Hank are gifted presenters and writers, it became quickly obvious when Viggo Mortensen read that he was in a league of his own. Not necessarily for anything spectacular he does with the readings of his poems, in fact he almost delivers them in a monotone, but in his ability to let the poem shine through him like a beacon.
He acts as a conduit for his poems so that we are free to make our own interpretations of his work, rather then him feeling it necessary to impose an emotional reaction on us.
Viggo's poems about relationships leave one guessing as to who is to blame for its end, or for its success. Even when they are highly personal, or have the appearance of being about himself, he won't take sides and play the broken hearted lover or the jilting asshole. Like a pathologist he offers up a full dissection and autopsy, but instead of vital organs it's emotions that are being laid out on the table as we inspectors of life probe them for clues about the human condition.
He can be funny too, and although it was only included on the CD, "Everything Is Really Water", shows that Hank came by his sense of humour honestly. Of course I wonder if he ever has trouble explaining to people that his dad wrote a poem extolling the virtues of peeing in sinks. Actually it's more about the joys of peeing all around, but it's just that sinks get special mention; proper etiquette and cleaning requirements are very important.
One thing that worried me before I put the DVD in was that I had noticed there was quite a bit of audience noise bleeding through on the CD, including a female version of, I'm the show not those guys on stage. Thankfully she didn't make the cut on the DVD or it would have ruined it.
What was nice about the DVD was that you were able to clarify some things that you weren't certain about on the CD. Scott really did break down into tears in the middle of reading the poem about his mom dying. Or you get to see Viggo giving his son encouragement, or looking at him with pride.
While the CD probably has slightly better sound quality then the DVD, I return to what I said at the beginning of the review about seeing a poet live, and what the advantages of that are. All the little clues that you normally get from watching a person come through on a DVD. Whether body language or eye movement it all helps to us to interoperate the poem all the better.
3 Fools 4 April is a wonderful opportunity to see and hear three great poets and support a fine arts centre in Los Angeles. 3 Fools 4 April is available for sale through Perceval Press and is well worth every penny of the twenty dollar asking price.
(Originally posted February 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.