“The piano is!” shouted the person on my right.
“The piano!” shouted the person to my left.
There was a swell of voices everywhere: behind, in front, the crowd murmuring at a fever pitch.
We were in the middle of “Ostinato with Deceptive Cadence”, a performance piece written by Barbara DeCesare and given to the crowd. DeCesare stood in front of the crowd, revelling as each line revealed a new one. It was impressive. With minimal preamble the parts were handed out to the unprepared crowd–no practice, no auditions, just faces shouting out lines. Voices blending and weaving like a swelling wave.
It felt like the event of the year, and Andrea Gibson hadn’t even taken the stage yet.
(Video by Joshua Lee Mallory of Noise Soul Cinema)
Poetry Aloud happens twice a year at The Ware Center in Lancaster, the combined efforts of F&M’s Writer’s House and Millersville University’s Creative Writers Guild. The attendance has steadily grown over the past three years and in turn, each event has been better than the next.
The Ware Center is owned by Millersville University. It had a long history as the building for the Pennsylvania Academy of Music, but was bought by MU and renovated to serve as a downtown location for events and classes. While prior Poetry Aloud events had taken place in a small room, it’s grown beyond those confines and given the large gathering area of the third floor.
Twenty poets took the stage; 16 who signed up for the open reading segment, three highlighted, notable regional poets (including Chris Longenecker, Barbara DeCesare, and Maryan Captan), and the featured poet, Andrea Gibson.
One of the beautiful things about an open reading is seeing a wide spectrum of people at varying stages of life. While the academic affiliation of the two organizing groups ensured a number of the early readers were college students, there were other Lancaster-area readers and people who drove from Scranton, Philadelphia, and beyond, in order to participate.
In an open reading, every person who walks up to the podium is a mystery. And their reading unwraps them. Sometimes it is the words they utter. But more often it is way they say those words: pauses, increases in volume, non-verbal cues like the subconscious hand movements that punctuate words. Or consciously tossing paper on the floor. Some people memorize, others read. Each act is sprinkled with personality.
The evening really took off when the highlighted poets took the stage.
While there was excellent poetry before Chris Longenecker stepped up to the mic, there is a sensation of dominance that an established poet commands when performing. Longenecker told stories and read poems. It wasn’t flashy: simple words conveying observations about things she’s seen. But clever construction and a comfortable delivery style made them very identifiable.
On the other hand, Barbara DeCesare dropped her words like a bomb. Kopow. From the get-go the audience was wrapped up in a whirlwind as DeCesare deftly maneuvered through her set; from poem, to short story (“And now I’m going to read you a novel,” she said, and it would not have been disappointing if it had been a novel), to the group performance of “Ostinato with Deceptive Cadence”.
Maryan Captan finished the trio off with one of the more nuanced performances of the evening. Captan underscores her engaging wordplay with a sigh; each line falls naturally into the audience, her inflections highlighting the natural cadence of the phrases. Even if you disregard the content of her poems, Captan’s performance was the most beautiful of the evening.
Andrea Gibson is from Boulder, Colorado. She’s garnered numerous accolades and distinctions, ranging from winning the first ever Women of the World Poetry Slam and having a Utah state representative read one of her poems in the legislature.
It would be easy to take a look at the laundry list of topics she hits–LGBT, class, war, etc–and call her a political issues poet. But it is an accusation that quickly fades when she’s actually standing there. Instead of being a combatant, she crafts her words such that they feel like personal journeys; as if they were written as she herself was in the throes of discovery. What makes them powerful is that, even though they don’t feel crafted to be a political battle, they still resonate with this charge that can change.
Aiding in this is the gut-wrenching delivery Gibson employs. She can speak quietly and she can speak loud and fast, making you wonder how she even gets enough oxygen to stand. Yet stand she does, pouring her voice into the microphone, seemingly oblivious to the crowd.
Many of the pieces featured instrumental music that played through the speakers to help punctuate and tone her performance. But this is merely a small flourish–no one would have felt cheated if it wasn’t there.
There are a thousand of observations, joys, and tears that could be communicated about Gibson’s performance. And then a thousand more. But perhaps this is the best way to convey it: some poetry events make you feel good afterward, but others make you feel like the most crucial thing in the world is to start writing things down. And that is the weighty impact of what transpired on a small, assembled stage in Lancaster, PA.
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(Video by Joshua Lee Mallory of Noise Soul Cinema)