This afternoon, six of my Keene State teaching colleagues and I will give a public reading of our original poems, stories and essays. Although poetry readings are common on college campuses, it’s unusual, I think, to offer a mixed-genre reading, a celebration of creative writing of various shapes and sizes. Although I don’t have much experience reading my own words in front of a live audience, I have an idea of how I want to approach this afternoon’s not-quite-poetry reading. Whether you’re reading poetry, short fiction, or essays from your blog-archive, I think the secret to telling a good story lies in how you breathe it. Deeply inspired—deeply breathed—stories come not just from the head or heart but from all the way down in the belly.
I still remember learning how to breathe a good story. In elementary school, I was regularly chosen to read the Scripture readings at my church’s children’s liturgies. Being chosen to read at such liturgies meant several things: you stood in front of your classmates with a construction paper-backed photocopy of the day’s Bible reading; your parents smiled and nodded, proudly taking your picture before and after (but never during) your moment in the spotlight; and you practiced beforehand with Mrs. Sue Long. As director of my parish’s religious education program, Mrs. Long was something of a celebrity: after all, she was our religion teachers’ boss.
I remember Mrs. Long spending an inordinate amount of time (it seemed) insisting that I pace my reading correctly. “Just” reading the passage wasn’t enough: you had to time it just right. “Read S-L-O-W-L-Y,” she’d admonish from the back of the church as I stood by the altar declaiming “A reading from the Acts of the Apostles” for what seemed to be the ninetieth time. “Take time to breathe, and to breathe deeply” she’d remind me after each sentence. “Let the echoes of your words die off before you continue,” Mrs. Long would explain. “You need time not only to breathe but to let your words filter into the ears of your hearers.” I heard similar advice from a Victorian lit professor who years later explained how to recite a poem correctly: “Read as slowly as you possibly can, and then slow down.”
I’ll keep these bits of advice in mind as I prepare two short essays from my blog-archives for this afternoon’s reading, doing the kind of homework Mrs. Long always required. First, I’ve prepared a clean, easily read text: a double-spaced copy in large type. Second, I’ll mark this text with the “traffic signs” Mrs. Long taught me to rely upon: underlining for words that should be stressed, slashes at points where there should be brief pauses, and double slashes where there should be longer pauses. Third, I’ll practice the reading aloud, again: only my tongue can tell me which words look good on paper but are difficult to pronounce in front of a live audience. In doing such preparation, I’ll presumably come to know my own prose in a whole new way, noticing how my words alternate between stressed and unstressed syllables, practicing how to punctuate my sentences with artful pauses, and revising so I can oscillate between long and short sentences.
Although I’m not reading poetry at this afternoon’s not-quite-poetry reading, I want to approach my performance as if it were just that: a performance where breath gives voice to song. What I’m aiming for, in other words, is to spend ten minutes breathing life into sentences in a full-bodied, belly-centered way: to offer a reading that isn’t shallow, panted from the nose or lungs alone, but one that comes from deeper inside, deeper below. It isn’t coincidental, I think, that Buddhists see the life center as being in the belly: the hara, the warm fistful of gut located a couple of fingers’ widths below the navel. As I read, I will try to focus (just as I do when I meditate) on this center and on the breath that comes from there. With the eyes of a live audience on me, it seems the least I can do.
If you’re in Keene and free this afternoon, Keene State College’s second annual Adjunct Faculty Reading will happen in the Student Center’s Mountain View Room at 4:00 pm. (Click here for additional details.)