AWP 2014 Series: Korey Williams on Poetry & Performance

Are you a poet? Do you seek to expand your audience through readings and interviews? Well, if you’re an uncharismatic reader of your own work, don’t expect a slot at the Texas Book Festival, at least not while Steph Opitz is the Literary Director. She, along with Katie Freeman (Associate Director of Publicity at Riverhead Books), Caroline Casey (Marketing and Sales Director at Coffee House Books), and Jane Friedman (former publisher of Writer’s Digest), offered a number of post-publication marketing strategies at the 2014 AWP panel session entitled “Once It’s Out of the Gate.” The strategy to which they often returned was charisma, even suggesting that some writers take courses in acting and public speaking. As someone who has attended far too many humdrum poetry readings, I have no qualms against that strategy. Poets who are likeable, engaging, and memorable have a better chance at convincing audience members to buy their books than poets who are dull, inarticulate, or unfriendly. With the understanding that increasing book sales is vastly important if poets (all writers really) wish to connect with a broad readership, I will focus on poetry as performance, particularly ways in which various poets at AWP 2014 effectively engaged (and disengaged) their audiences.


Since my goal was to attend as many poetry readings as possible, I am thrilled to have witnessed readings by a range of poets, including Elizabeth Alexander, Joy Harjo, Harryette Mullen, Hilary Vaughn Dobel, Dean Young, Camille Dungy, Natalie Diaz, Lucia Perillo, and Carl Phillips. Unfortunately, not all of these poets are virtuosic readers of their own work. In fact, some nearly put me to sleep with dry, flat recitations. Gorgeous lines of humor, tragedy, and lament were diluted almost to the point of meaninglessness by their monotones. However, I must admit that such lifeless readings were a rare occurrence amongst these fine poets. Some were quite lively and entertaining—perhaps too entertaining. I found that sensational theatricality, though deeply moving, obscured the poems themselves. Rather than paying attention to language, I was engrossed by the poets’ emotionality. Luckily, a number of these poets demonstrated a balance between not-too-deadpan and not-too-dramatic, allowing subtle musicality to enliven rather than eclipse their poems. The two who demonstrated this best were Natalie Diaz and Carl Phillips.


Natalie Diaz, along with Lucia Perillo, actually stepped in to read in place of W. S. Merwin—who couldn’t make it to Seattle due to health issues—for Copper Canyon Press’s reading and conversation with Merwin and Dean Young. After recovering from my disappointment over not hearing Merwin, who is an expert reader of poetry, I was delighted to experience Diaz’s mellifluous voice as she read from her collection entitled When My Brother Was An Aztec. With a sweet yet dusky tone, Diaz modulated between her upper and lower registers, usually completing her phrases with a dramatic fall in pitch. Within this fairly regular pattern of rise and fall, she riffed by accelerating and decelerating her pace while seamlessly incorporating both Spanish and Mojave into her recitation. Anyone who has ever studied a second language can surely relate to the difficulty in shifting between languages, especially when multiple languages inhabit the same phrase. But Diaz made it look and, more importantly, sound easy. The audience was quite responsive to Diaz’s work, often times laughing then sighing then groaning as she read single sentences, sentences that are initially hilarious but quickly turn sour. I’d never heard of Natalie Diaz until her reading, but, after such a moving performance, I plan to purchase her collection in the near future.


Just after the session with Diaz, Perillo, and Young, in the same room actually, Carl Phillips participated in a reading sponsored by Cave Canem which also featured Camille Dungy, Joy Harjo, and Harryette Mullen. Of all the panels and sessions I attended at AWP, this was definitely my favorite, seeing as I was already a fan of all of these poets, especially Phillips. He read selections from his latest collection, entitled Silverchest, including “Blizzard,” “Late in the Long Apprenticeship,” and “So the Mind Like a Gate Swings Open.” With a consistently melancholic tone, Phillips distinguished each speech act with precise inflections, from the upward swing of questions to the restlessness of contemplation to the authoritative sureness of declarations. From beginning to end, Phillips emoted a sense of vulnerability which perfectly parallels the poems themselves, poems that express the risks of living and loving, the dangers of confronting and putting language to what is intellectually, emotionally, and physically difficult. The atmosphere in the audience was like that of church: sighs, groans, and grunts of affirmation interspersed with cries of Yes! If I didn’t already own a copy of Silverchest, I most certainly would have bought one.


For the sake of concision, I only discussed Natalie Diaz and Carl Phillips. However, all the poets I mentioned are brilliant and deserve a wide readership. Moreover, they all have their own strengths as readers and speakers. From them, I learned a number of valuable lessons in charisma. As I envision my own future as a poet, I hope to deliver readings that not only encourage sales (though high book sales would be greatly appreciated) but also resonate with audiences in ways that are deeply meaningful.

Korey Williams - Profile PictureKorey graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University in April of 2012 with a B.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing. During his undergraduate career, he studied abroad at Hertford College, University of Oxford. After graduation, he participated in the 2012 Summer Workshop organized by the Institute for Recruitment of Teachers in Andover, MA. During the workshop, studying and facilitating seminars on critical, cultural, and educational theory augmented his desire for a career in higher education. Accordingly, he then worked for a year as a Library and Learning Support Assistant at National Louis University in Downtown Chicago. Now here at The University of Chicago, he’s writing a creative thesis in the form of a novella-in-verse that explores the relationship between loss, desire, and identity. This coming fall, he will enter Cornell University’s M.F.A. program in Creative Writing.

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