Sometimes it begins as a small clinching feeling in the abdomen--other times, a snort and a half-restrained smile. You know the feeling. You're at a poetry reading, and the reader says something so brain-clenchingly pretentious that you have to use every milligram of your willpower to keep from busting a gut amongst the solemn masses. When such stink bombs emit in the voice of Alvin the Chipmunk, the pain is that much more terrible. Yes, I'm talking about a Brenda Hillman reading. Not only that, it was being recorded for posterity and preserved on the net for all to enjoy! Some of you probably have never experienced a Hillman reading, and I wanted to spread the love with a bootlegged podcast from this site. But no need. Now you can hear the worst reading voice in the history of letters in the comfort of your own apartment, where you can roll around on the floor laughing to your heart's content. By the time you read this, the stream will probably be up. Here's the link.
In the first of a two-part national embarrassment, Hillman read last night in Iowa City. Next week, it's the esteemed crew from "Legitimate Dangers" in their bid to win the W.B.A. title in "Syncophantic Logrolling." This first event was just too snarkworthy to pass up, but I wondered how I could make it through without being floored by spasmodic giggling. Then I realized it. The reading was being broadcast over the radio!
Oh it was everything I could have hoped for and more. It was about halfway through that I realized anything I said would pale before the real article, so I started taking notes.
"It's kind of interesting to hear words as bird-song," Hillman averred, so ever the ideal audience member, Poetry Snark tried. Painfully however, no amount bird imagining could divest Hillman's words of the fact that they are, well... words (you know, those things we use to communicate meaning). But I’m a good sport, and I decided to play along. Lots of poets have their birdy moments. Whitman had his “mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,” Keats had his nightingale, and Coleridge had that spooky albatross thing going on in “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.”
I’m no ornithologist, but there was one feathery moment from my childhood that seemed all Hillman. Yes, I remember the sound… the whining cut-off shriek of a wren (or whatever) as it impacted with the windshield. Later Hillman announced her quest to “spell a birdsong.” Seriously. You can’t make this kind of shit up.
Next came Hillman’s main course and signature theme: astrology. Here are her exact words: “I’m a triple fire-sign. Anybody else know what that means?” Yes, I do know what that means. It means you’re a flake, Brenda. Does that shit even fly in Berkeley? I mean seriously, someone out there must actually like her poems, right? How would even the most ardent “Brenda Hillman fan” have responded to this pronouncement? “Neato! I’m a quadruple air sign. Let’s explode together!” One can only hope.
“I was thinking a lot about air in words,” we were told, and so were we: hot air. Yup, nothing smells quite like avant-garde as much as “air in words” (and its visual Tweedle-Dum, “white space”). Tasty. After sampling said air, Hillman went on to read a poem called “Enchanted Twig.” Much to my dismay however, it turned out not to be about Robert Hass.