Rhyme and Reason

Leaning House Records puts a new slant on poetry

Myers began contacting many of the same poets whose work he featured in the New American Poets collection--all of whom are considered among the best contemporary poets in the world, many having garnered numerous National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, Pushcart Prizes, National Poetry Series awards, and other prestigious accolades. They came from all over the country--Mark Cox from Kansas, Lynn Emanuel from Pennsylvania, Mark Halliday from Michigan, Tim Seibles from Virginia (by way of Dallas, where he taught poetry at SMU for 10 years), Li-Young Lee from Chicago via Indonesia, and Naomi Shihab Nye from all over.

And they all possess one thing in common: They are writers who use the language of the everyday to craft their poems. There are no florid words or grandiose sentences or convoluted themes, but the prosaic turned into the poetic.

Myers writes of the thoughts that ramble through his head as he buys groceries: Right here in the hyped-up screaming/of the cereal aisle, the kids used to fly around/the kitchen like cartoon characters.

Mark Cox writes of domestic tranquility and the restlessness seething underneath the placid surface: I am so close to her that if I were to speak one word/silently, she would feel it and toss the covers to one side/and for this reason I'll say nothing as long as I can.

Naomi Shihab Nye writes of lost loved ones and forgotten memories: A man leaves the world/and the streets he lived on/grow a little shorter.

And Li-Young Lee writes of death and the pain it brings to the survivors: At this hour, what is dead is worried/and what is living is fugitive.

The writing contained in Leaning House Poetry Volume One is as personal as Emanuel's essay on why she's a poet ("The Politics of Narrative--Why I Am a Poet") and as political as Seibles' piece on the aftershocks of the 1992 Los Angeles riots ("Kerosene"); they're as abstract as Lee's "With Ruins" and as poignantly specific as Halliday's "Divorce Dream." But more to the point--and to Elliott and Myers' purpose--the poems read like finely condensed prose, short stories with huge enough gaps to allow readers to fill in their own interpretations and emotions.

From the beginning, it was Myers and Elliott's intention to present poetry as an "accessible" (their word) and living art form. As Elliott constantly reminds, this isn't Walt Whitman or William Shakespeare or even e.e. cummings, but a handful of living American poets crafting their works in a modern context using contemporary vernacular.

"I think it's beautiful," Elliott says of the work. "It's like great prose, really condensed prose. It just takes an intelligent audience to make those leaps. These people are masters of language, and anybody who says modern poetry is without craft hasn't experienced it, because it's a very crafty kind of thing. It's different. It's heavily dependent upon imagery."

"When I was in high school, the poets read to us were from the 19th century and earlier," says Myers, who has edited five other collections, including A Profile of American Poetry in the 20th Century. "I never tuned into these poets very much and felt like I had to be educated to their idiom. I vowed I would teach poetry in the same age in which people were living. Most of the poems [in the new book] are very conversational, as though someone's talking to you."

Which is perhaps an ideal way to describe the CD itself: Recorded in four studios around the country, the disc is what distinguishes Leaning House Poetry Volume One from other poetry anthologies. Though the history of recorded poetry goes back to at least the 1950s, when Jack Kerouac read his work accompanied by the jazz of Zoot Sims and Al Coen, and MTV's radio network recently tried to make a go of its "Man in the Moon" spoken-word series hosted by former KERA-FM disc jockey Liza Richardson, the Leaning House project is the first of its kind to feature published poets interpreting their own works in front of a microphone.

This isn't the stuff of poetry slams and coffee-house poetry nights--the confrontational, sloppy rantings of anyone with a pen, a notebook, and caffeine in their blood. These are bona fide artists and teachers, men and women who have taken jobs in the academic world to support their writings, since the larger publishing houses now stay away from releasing poetry collections by single authors, leaving that to the university presses and other smaller specialty houses.

Some of the poets were skeptical about the idea at first, if only because there existed no precedent; others were more than willing to lend their works and their time to the project, especially because of their friendships with Myers. Lynn Emanuel admits she was at first "skeptical" of the idea, but slowly came around to the notion of a book and a CD.

"These days poetry has gotten to be such an oral medium that this made incredible sense," she says from her home in Pittsburgh. "More and more, it's the performance people are interested in, the sound and music of the poem, and I thought it was actually a great idea...People no longer want to sit isolated in a room with a book. They want to share the experience of the poem with other people."

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