Brandon Shimoda has organized more than a dozen poetry readings, featuring maybe three times that many poets, in Missoula over the past three years. And he doesn’t even really like them that much.
“It’s kind of a weird thing but I have always hated poetry readings,” Shimoda says. “My first poetry reading was probably something that I found pretty unbearable. But that’s something that I am trying to work within.”
Shimoda, a poet who graduated last spring from the University of Montana’s MFA program, is the organizer of New Lakes, a three-year-old reading and performance series featuring mostly poetry by local writers but an increasing number of readers from out of town. Working within his ambivalence means that New Lakes readings are, says Shimoda, “more rounded affairs” than academic expositions, often featuring live music, quirky touches appropriate to the readers and a generally relaxed atmosphere. One New Lakes event last year featured the poetry of, and readings by, students from Rattlesnake Elementary School; it was catered with ice cream sandwiches. Another reading, this one featuring prose, was titled “Sex and Violence” and included televisions playing video of each throughout the evening.
To begin the spring 2007 New Lakes series, Shimoda, at the suggestion of Missoula poet Christine Bown, enticed Dan Beachy-Quick to make the trip from his home in Chicago to Missoula. Beachy-Quick, a poet and writing professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, emphasizes the repetition of words and the cadence of their delivery—their “music” as Beachy-Quick puts it—in his poetry, often experimenting with rearrangement and re-composition of phrases into altered forms. It’s a distinctive, nontraditional style that Shimoda says is perfect for New Lakes.
“He is so invested in sound,” Shimoda says. “I think it will be great to actually hear this stuff in person.”
Beachy-Quick exhibits his interest in reflexive composition and lexical play in his latest book, Mulberry, which rewrites itself exactly halfway through, spinning the material from the first half of the book into the second half backward from the inflection point.
Another example of Beachy-Quick’s style is an excerpt published in last spring’s issue of the UM literary journal CutBank. The piece juxtaposes prose culled from outside sources with lyrical poems composed by Beachy-Quick and grid-like arrangements of words that are almost confrontational—the layout is stark compared to the traditional forms of poetry on the page.
In a recent phone interview, Beachy-Quick says he owes much of his style to the romanticism of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
“Whatever occurs in a poem,” he says, “part of what it does is that it does this work of shattering the language by which we thought we understood something and gets us not necessarily to a new and shinier understanding of it, but to the difficulty of not quite getting it, of being able to face up to a world that doesn’t fully cohere. “Poetry,” Beachy-Quick continues, “is able to do this through using language against itself.”
It does this best, he says, when read aloud.
“Poetry is primarily an oral or expressive form and so to hear a poem gives you access to how it most truly is, which is in the ear and spoken and in the atmosphere before it’s on the page.”
While hearing poetry read aloud might be the best way to appreciate it, Beachy-Quick acknowledges that it’s not the easiest because whatever happens while someone’s attention is elsewhere during listening is irretrievably lost while “with reading you get to go back and back again so there’s not the same issue of temporality.”
But then poetry appreciation has not, perhaps ever, been synonymous with ease, and for Beachy-Quick, that’s part of the art’s allure. In other words, he says, there’s a wisdom seemingly promised in poetry but held beyond reach. That impenetrable obscurity isn’t intentional obfuscation as much as it’s necessary for the poet to convey the complexity of what he’s trying to portray. Beachy-Quick knows that’s not always easy.
“One has to be almost as deliberate in reading poetry or attending readings,” he says, “as one has to be in terms of setting down a page and writing it.”
Against the cultural forces that mitigate the attention and willingness people have to consider poetry, Shimoda can’t quite figure out why he of all people initiated the reading series that will next connect Beachy-Quick with a room full of listeners.
“When I got to Missoula and entered into the MFA program I felt like part of my MFA experience was being involved in every aspect of the life of a poet,” he says, “whether it was editing or organizing or writing or reading…I had to milk that experience and part of that was setting up a reading series that didn’t already exist.”
Still, he adds, “I’m not really sure why I was the one who did it. I think it was just because…I—I—I have no idea.”
Shimoda’s admiration for Beachy-Quick’s poetry in particular supplies one answer. “He is really trying to re-vision the world in a time when it feels like attention is at the lowest level of priority, at a hazardous level,” says Shimoda. “So I would say he is a political poet but not like [Allen] Ginsberg or Adrian Rich, writing about the political landscape. He digs much more deeply into ethical involvement in the world and how that is a revolutionary thing these days.”
Poets Dan Beachy-Quick and Christine Bown read at 7:30 PM on Friday, March 9, at Gallery Saintonge. Beachy-Quick also offers a craft lecture at 1 PM in room 204 of Jeannette Rankin Hall on the UM campus.