Walking into DogStar Books for the first time looks, initially, like walking into a normal used bookstore. But then as you mosey towards the rear, you suddenly realize there is more. And before you know it you’re lost in a maze of rooms revealing rooms with more books.
Ok, sure, the second time you visit it isn’t surprising and the maze simply becomes several fun branches. But at the end of one of the branches is a gallery where, once a month, DogStar Books hosts a poetry reading.
It’s an echoey chamber—white walls, nails to hang artwork, a three-wheeled bicycle, and a large window looking out on a normal Lancaster street. Folding chairs provide seating, allowing an intimate reading. The natural echo of the room provides a natural amplification, making easy to hear and enjoy voices.
The featured poet was Richard Hemmings from Stewartstown, PA. When he shuffled up to the podium, it was with a blazingly orange t-shirt. He stood there for a few seconds and launched with a poem that was easy to mistake for an introductory preamble, one laced with rhythm, sharp humor, and stage presence.
Richard Hemmings commands the floor when he’s in front of an audience. He transforms poems from a simple recital to an all-out performance with hand gestures, facial expressions, and physical reflections of the content such as drooping his shoulders.
“I write a lot from little experiences and things that happen to me,” Hemmings explained before beginning a poem that stemmed from an experience he had waiting for the train at the Lancaster train station.
Most of what Hemmings read formed a unique little narrative. He used the written word (and ensuing performances) to convey personal tales, experiences, and observations. This lead to multiple anecdotes being told prior to reading the influenced poem. One of his poems, “Black Woman”, showcased an experience he had upon walking by a homeless person wrapped head-to-foot in black trash bags. The poems by themselves would be compelling, but when given the context of the precipitating event, they took on a shimmer that keyed into his thought process.
Hemmings didn’t limit his repertoire to his own writing. At various points during his reading he’d inform the audience about a poet that he has appreciated and would read one of their pieces.
With an apology that he couldn’t memorize, the last poem Hemmings performed was crafted off the top of his head around a word taken at random from the audience, “Lemon.” He stood for a few seconds considering before freestyling a delightfully coherent piece that will never be uttered again.
The open reading at the end allowed audience members to share their creations. After signing up on a sheet of paper, the names were read at random. Upon hearing their name the poet would go up front, read their piece, and return to their seat. The format created a sense of anonymity; people were typically referred to by first name only.
Yet one of the more compelling moments of the evening happened during the open reading. One woman stood up and read a poem. Afterward she told the audience about how she’d write poems and not edit them, as to “Honor the raw.” Moments like that provide a nice counterpoint to the idea that every word and line needs to be meticulously poured over and tweaked.
One of the neat aspects to attending an open reading is hearing examples of both the raw words that have been dashed on a page or screen and people who edit and re-edit before releasing their words, in addition to many other writing processes and philosophies.