The reading with Simon Pettet at Geoff Young's gallery in Great Barrington on Saturday was a delight, if I do say so myself.
Geoff had the bright idea that Simon and I alternate poems, a format I've done in the past, but hadn't taken part in nor seen in many years. Very old style. More like a poetry jam than a poetry reading.
It's a little risky, because each individual poet can't take the time to stretch out in any one poem (like many of mine which are often longer than Simon's) or to follow a poem that possibly falls a little flat with one you know will pick things up, etc.
Plus, the other guy could get in several hits in a row while your choices (as responses) miss and the whole reading will begin to sag.
Or one poet could just so dominate the other that it's too one-sided to even watch, like some of the early Mike Tyson fights (or exciting to watch, depending on your nature, to witness such quick and efficient devastation of an opponent).
But fortunately for Simon and me, and I think the audience would agree (and a very smart and attractive group it was), it really swung. Partly because I think we are enough alike in sensibility and even sentiment (a bit romantic but capable of being cold eyed about it), especially since I had to read short poems or short excerpts from long ones.
After we did the one poem back and forth thing for a few poems, Simon hesitated and suggested we go back to a more normal format but many in the audience made it clear they wanted us to continue the back and forth formula.
That's when we really had to dig down, or at least I know I had to, and grab a poem that I felt would resonate with what Simon just read and carry the reading forward and hopefully to an even higher level.
It was a gas. Felt like the days when I was a young jazz musician and would jam with people who were in my range of ability and so there was a security in letting the instincts and inspiration take the music to wherever it wanted to lead me.
(When Simon suggested we go back to a normal format and some in the crowd insisted we not, someone, I think it was Phil, made a comment comparing it to a jazz jam, citing two saxophonists that I knew but can't remember which ones (if you're out there Phil remind me please) but do remember feeling very jazzed just by the flattering comparison.)
We cooked that way until it felt like close to finishing when Simon made a brilliant suggestion, but again a risky one, that for an ending we each read a poem by the other poet.
I picked a poem of Simon's that he wrote during the onset of the Iraq War (that begins "There is a cruel, messianic, dim, tribal intransigence") that's been my favorite poem of his ever since. Then he, seeming at a loss as to which of mine to choose since I had a stack of books from over the years sitting on the table on either side of which each of us was standing, read one I chose for him that I wrote back in '75 on April Fool's day.
As I read Simon's, I noticed I couldn't help but read it slower than I usually do, more like Simon reads his poems, only still sounding like me, ending up with a combination of both our styles that made the poem new for me and moved me even more than it already had.
The same thing seemed to happen when Simon ended the reading with my April Fools Day 1975 poem. I was as surprised at where it took him, and me, and I hope the audience, as Simon seemed to be. And he read it quite a bit faster than he usually reads his own poems, more like I read mine.
I think it worked because all of us had gotten used to the rhythms and strategies of each poet, and our voices, and then to switch off and resonate each other's voices and poetic approaches in each other's voice was just kind of delightfully fresh.
Anyway, that's the way I experienced it. Wish you'd been there, and if you were, hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.