COLUMBIA — The inside of a coffee shop was transformed into Gotham City, Constantinople and a dusty warehouse, all inside an hour. The audience could hear the taunts in Batman’s voice as he left a message “On Selina Kyle’s Answering Machine.” They could smell the blood of broken families during “The Siege of Byzantium.” They could feel the shame of being on a shelf, forgotten and one of the unused “Older Piñatas.”
The Center Reading Series had its first reading of the season Sept. 13 at the Cherry Street Artisan, where three MU graduate student poets and one guest poet read their work in an effort to give back to the community.
Sponsored by the Center for the Literary Arts, the series began last February in an effort to showcase poetry by graduate students.
“It came together kind of randomly, and wonderfully so,” said Chad Parmenter, assistant director of the center and one of the poets featured on Thursday. “It’s anything we can do to let people know about great poetry being read.”
Wayne Miller, the series’ guest for the evening, explained the fundamental difference between merely reading poetry in print and experiencing it live by remembering how he never understood a professor’s poems until he attended one of her readings.
“Once I heard it in her voice out loud, then I could read it on the page,” Miller said.
The live atmosphere also provides a different experience for the poets themselves.
“It’s kind of a rush to be reading in that environment,” said Tim Hayes, who opened the season with his four-part poem about the fall of Constantinople.
Hayes wrote “The Siege of Byzantium” through the eyes of a fictional character observing the grisly defeat of the city, but Hayes gave his audience the opportunity to see, hear and smell the changes of the city from impenetrable to fragile.
“I try to reanimate history, so it’s not an abstract thing,” he said of his style. His voice took an upward inflection at the end of each line and he became the vessel for his character.
John Nieves contrasted Hayes’ reading with a wide variety of experiences and emotions in his own poems.
“I watch people, and I listen to what they tell me, and I steal their stories,” Nieves said. “I hope that maybe when I’m done talking that I’ll understand what I was missing.”
The most vivid of his poems, “Older Piñatas,” personified the whimsical party decorations so the audience would feel bad for those that cannot fulfill their destinies. Here is an excerpt:
So they stay, built for breaking,
sick with their own fullness,
whole in a world made for shattered things.
Poetry gives writers a greater freedom of expression and the opportunity to express things they normally couldn’t.
“There are things I could talk about in poetry that I can’t in prose,” Parmenter said.
His “On Selina Kyle’s Answering Machine” gives the audience an idea at what a voicemail from Batman might sound like in sonnet form, excerpted here:
Selina, you’re the mask Catwoman wears.
So take you off. Let her come out, to flee
from me. I’ll hunt her only through night air,
until it’s masked by dawn, and then release
her to you. Kyle, pick up. I hear your purr.
The evening concluded with Miller reading first from his book “Only the Senses Sleep” and then from a new manuscript. Throughout his poems were intricate images and detailed metaphors, among them:
the airplane in which I came here
rested on the intricate web of city lights
reflected in the underside of its wings
Many patrons of the Cherry Street Artisan, who might have only stopped in for a break from the Twilight Festival downtown, ended up staying the evening with the poets. This is not a new occurrence for the series, and yet Miller still acknowledged how underrated the art is.
“When you think about poetry, it’s about the most practiced art form in America, and it’s the least appreciated, the least read, the least literally appreciated the way you appreciate art when you go to a museum.”