Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Poets and Body Language

Maya Angelou, back in the day
If the research about the importance of body language is correct then maybe poets should spend less time working on specific wording in this poem or that poem and spend more time thinking about how they walk to the podium, how stand when they read, and the kind of eye contact they make with their audience? Ok, ok, poets can still work on specific wording, but maybe some attention can also be given to body language.

Poets, people in general in fact, communicate so much through nonverbal means. I became increasingly aware of and intrigued by poets' nonverbal communication several years ago when I first began working with poet/photographer Eugene B. Redmond, who already had at that time a collection of more than 100,000 photographs of poets, novelists, musicians, politicians, and various attendees at events. Looking over thousands of his photographs of poets as I prepared exhibits of Redmond's images gave me a chance to become more familiar with the signature poses and patterned gestures of prominent figures.

I'm still learning how to read the body language of poets. However, since I have seen so many photographs of Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni in Redmond's collection over the years, I have rewarding intellectual experiences when I see them do live readings. I've somehow developed a built-in sense of what to look for when they read. Baraka and Giovanni will tell humorous narratives during their discussions between poems, but they'll also invariably relay information that leads them to become angry and display furrowed eyebrows.  

During a presentation, Angelou will go through a broad and diverse range of facial expressions. In the span of 45 minutes or so, she'll express surprise, joy, sadness, pride, delight, courage, love, and appreciation. You could watch her performance on mute and still be moved by the language of her gestures and facial expressions. Many professional poets express disdain toward Maya Angelou as a poet, but more of them really could learn something from her body language.     

Sanchez and Baraka will spend moments of their performances closing their eyes and showing a level of strain as they channel the look of musicians more so than conventional poets. Having been exposed to so many photographs of them reading, when I see them live, I find myself waiting and anticipating those signature moves, that now familiar body language.   

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