Thursday, March 16, 2017

Tracie Morris's extraordinary poetry reading pace

Tracie Morris reading poetry as William Harris listens

You gotta hold on, because sometimes when you're listening to Tracie Morris reading poetry, it's like some kind of locomotive, the way she's hitting full-steam ahead at a quick pace, not breaking, not pausing, just forward-charging, pressing quickly across space and time, leaving you behind if you don't keep up, compelling you to push yourself just to catch up, as she's rolling and pulling you along, prompting you to try to catch your breath, reminding you just how fast things are going now, making you forget or remember how slowly most poems are read, while this one, the one she's presenting right now laps you one time, two times, and near the third lap, just decides to carry you along, without missing a beat or slowing down, cause among other things, these upbeat moves, this force to get you all-aboard, this movement here at this moment is what her poetry reading is.   

William Harris's birthday party was the first time I was so closeup at a Tracie Morris reading. In the past, I've seen her read, she was on a stage in crowded auditoriums.

She read a few poems, selecting pieces from her various collections. The poems resonated in all kinds of ways with me and the audience. At some point, I realized, though, that not enough has been said about Morris's pace, and perhaps the implications of reading pace in American and African American poetry in general.

I've been attending poetry readings now for more than 20 years. By and large, most poets read somewhat slowly and deliberately. They want you to absorb each word and select phrasings.  They sometimes insert dramatic pauses.

Granted, the spoken word sets I attended more regularly as an undergraduate did include poet-performers reading a little faster. Whether they were reading slower or faster almost always depended on them reading from memory or on the page. Reading from the page was done a little slower.

Morris is of a different order. She's not always reading at a fast pace, but when she does, when she wants to, she really accelerates. It's like nothing you've ever heard from  most poets. She can persist with that quick pace for long stretches, and as a result, give you a sound and listening experience that is uncommon. There are moments on Amiri Baraka's It's Nation Time, where he reads at an accelerated pace, but he was reading with musicians, which may have shaped that decision.

During some of the poems Morris read last week, she includes sections with Spanish. She also included excerpts of songs. Her readings are in short a mixed media verbal affair. The slower pace of the songs she sang made me appreciate and recognize just how fast she was moving as she read poetry.     

 But even when she wasn't reading particularly fast, she had adjusted her audience to the sense that there was motion with her poems. Her pacing suggested she was taking us some place. The flow of the words seemed to keep us moving.

You know, there's something in literary history known as the New Negro Movement. There's something known as the Black Arts Movement. There's a poet named Tracie Morris, and her process of reading poetry is a movement.   

The Poet (Tracie Morris) vs. the Rappers (of East St. Louis)

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