Beck has a slow-jam my sister and I used to love when we were growing up. It’s called “Debra,” and it goes like this: “I wanna get with you / And your sister / I think her name’s Debra / I pick you up late at night after work / I said lady, step inside my Hyundai / I’m gonna take you up to Glendale.” “Debra” is important to this tour blog entry for two reasons: 1) Three ladies—Cynthia Arrieu-King, Claire Becker, and I—just spent four days in a royal blue Hyundai Accent and 2) We spent the tour driving the California freeways, including the 210, which we took through Glendale on our way from Pomona College to UC Merced on November 18th. If you’re curious about Beck’s song, click here. This tour blog entry will consist of photos that provide a blow-by-blow of our travels in California, alongside some reflections on the tour experience.
Doing these readings with Claire and Cindy allowed me to experience poetry from a different angle, and I also had the pleasure of getting to know Cindy (who I had only met once before), and spending a different kind of time with Claire–learning about her time in college, particularly. The three of us also got to share the experience of the readings, while simultaneously being independent. I think when you get to hear someone’s poems every day, you experience what’s different about that person; listening to the poems repeated, you learn that person’s complexity, as well, because a poet’s reading of her poems morphs and changes from reading to reading. I feel like I was lucky to experience this variety with Claire and Cindy.
Though we were all self-conscious about repeating the same stories about the same poems at every reading, these “repetitions” became my favorite part of the tour. Each night, stories and poems changed a bit. This experience of listening changed my perspective on the Poetry Reading with a capital “P” and “R.” Some nights, there was laughter at a certain spot in a poem, while the next night there was total silence at that point. I learned–mainly from C&C–that the “same” poem four nights in a row can, in fact, become like four different poems depending on inflection, tone, audience, treatment of punctuation, etc.
Each time I heard Claire or Cindy read the same poem, I would notice different images, syntax, diction, or metaphor. When Cindy read her poem “A Frenchman Comes out of the Crowd,” for example, I kept getting stuck on the first two lines: “Someone has decided to send me strangers. / Where is the stadium? they ask. Where is home?” I think what kept drawing my attention is the contrast between “stadium” and “home,” and the emotional gap between asking a stranger where a stadium is, and asking a stranger where one’s home is. Asking a stranger how to find one’s home suggests a kind of desperation. That gesture implies being lost on a different level. Every time I heard those lines my mind was sent, associatively, in a different direction.
In Claire’s poems, I kept noticing how sentences twist and move in different directions. In “Get You” the speaker states “You’re not scared / but you stare / when your face ages, / you change to lose touch.” I like how the line “when your face ages” works as a pivot between “but you stare” and “you change to lose touch” and functions doubly, as a part of either of two sentences. When I listened to Claire’s poems on tour, I could hear lines’ meanings changing as the poems unfolded. On different nights, I heard “you” having different kinds of agency in the line “when your face ages.” Does “you” accept aging, or does “you” try to “change” as a result of aging? And what does it mean to “change to lose touch”? Is losing touch–which we usually read connotatively as negative–spun in a positive way in this line? In Claire’s poems, I got to dwell in this liminal space in a new way each night.
I have one poem that is full of questions, and I found myself playing with the question marks–one night reading some of them as periods, i.e. as statements with a flatter tone, and another night reading them all as straight questions. For me, it was revitalizing to change a poem from night to night, to realize that despite the fixed form on the page, the auditory poem is flexible.
So, I feel like I just spent four days on a car trip with two members of my family who like vegging out as much as I do, and who are just really nice, respectful people. The tour felt comfy to me; it was like I was in a poetry cocoon (in the form of the Hyundai) with two other literature lovers whose energy about poetry is of the very best kind: curious, relaxed, scrupulous.
Figuring out logistics with these ladies was easy: when one of us got tired, another of us drove; we rotated reading order, sitting shotgun, paying for gas, passing the Four Loko… I’m kidding, but in all seriousness, Cindy and Claire were even nice to me when I got hungry and cranky, or when I got on the wrong freeway while driving.
What I’ve learned, then, is that a tour is both a comfy space and a process–a homey, changing thing, where repetition is alteration, and your friends have your back.