Rochester-based poet Thom Ward delivers a line from his most recent poetry collection, Etcetera’s Mistress (Accents Publishing, 2011), in a deep, crisp deadpan baritone that gives weight to every syllable he delivers. “My accountant and shrink share the same office building. Can I deduct my depression?” He pauses for a second, letting the line sink in, then lets out a billowing laugh. “In my work, I like to balance gravitas and levity,” he says shortly afterward.
Listening to a story or a poem read aloud allows a listener to glean much more than the sound and flow of the words being spoken. Suddenly, those inked characters on the page become fuel for the performance, bringing new dimensions and facets of a work to the forefront that was not as obviously apparent before.
Phil Memmer, director of the Downtown Writer’s Center at the YMCA of Greater Syracuse, is no stranger to the power of the spoken word. He organizes the spring and fall Visiting Author Readings for the center, and he finds himself very excited for this fall’s installment, which kicks off this Friday, Oct. 12, with readings from Ward, as well as Liverpool-based poet Patrick Lawler.
“Both Thom and Pat are amazing readers. They both have terrific voices and terrific presentations and great work to go along with it,” notes Memmer of his guests’ lively performance style. “It will not be a dry evening.”
With the exception of the two authors featured in this Friday’s installment, the upcoming season of Visiting Author Readings will present a different writer every Friday until Nov. 16. Memmer feels that putting a variety of talent in the spotlight for the poetry and fiction lovers of Central New York builds a personal connection that benefits both sides of the equation. “Our goal with the season is to always get folks in the area who are interested in books and stories to have firsthand encounters with living writers who are doing great work,” he says.
Lawler continues that tradition. He has a vivacious and evocative way of speaking, which translates well in performances. However, he can just as easily switch his voice to a grave, ominous lurch whenever the material necessitates it. Such a range of vocal inflections serves the character of his material well, which often provides moments of frivolity within darker subject matter like death and family tensions.
His talent for juxtaposing his more stoic subject matter with subtle humor impresses Memmer. “There’s a lot at stake, even when he’s being really funny and silly. That’s a hard balance to strike,” comments Memmer. “He has this playfulness, but it’s all at the service of something powerful.”
Lawler concedes that he takes an almost impish delight in surprising audiences with their own reactions. “I like to create these kinds of awkward moments where you end up laughing at something, and then you go, ‘Oops, maybe I shouldn’t have been laughing at that,’” says Lawler with a chuckle.
The recipient of many honors, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and two New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships, Lawler is the author of four books of poems. His upcoming fifth book, Rescuers of Skydivers Search Among the Clouds (University of Alabama Press, 2011), deviates from his previous work by being his first novel. Despite the different genre, the book’s shape-shifting narrative about a fractured family retains many of the earmarks of Lawler’s choppy poetic style and fluid reality. His more fragmented narrative style resonates particularly well in a novel format.
The non-linear method aids the sense of feeling and resonance he tries to achieve rather than presenting a more rigid exposition. “I try to capture more of a sense of the movement of life; that there’s this ever-evolving, ever-changing dynamic sort of quality. Every chapter shifts around,” says Lawler. “In one chapter, a character’s grandfather can be dead, but in the next chapter he’s alive.”
Lawler takes the tone and rhythm of a live presentation into account when writing. “I frequently write with audiences in mind,” he explains. “I write with the idea that I will be performing this.” In fact, he’ll even suddenly recite words and passages not on the page in order to suit the presentation of his work at the moment.
To him, it’s all part of playing to the crowd. “Some of it is extemporaneous,” he adds. “It depends a lot on the feedback of the audience. Sometimes you’ll want to emphasize the humor, and sometimes you might want to emphasize the more tragic.”
For his presentation, Ward plans on reading excerpts from his most recent book, as well as his other poetry. However, his work won’t be the only material he’ll be presenting to those in attendance. Ward plans on integrating handpicked selections of poetry from other poets, particularly from notable poets such as Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.
“It’s part of the reading tradition to not just read your own work, but other voices as well, whether they’re similar to yours or not,” says Ward. “Their poems have gripped me and shaken me, and made me feel more alive.”
Other installments of this season’s Visiting Author Readings will feature upstate New York poets of various styles and backgrounds. Count among them veteran authors such as B.H. Fairchild, Dan Torday and Paul Roth, as well as emerging poets such as Jules Gibbs, who just released her first book of poems. Even though the Downtown Writer’s Center has hosted world-renown poets in the past, their commitment to the local scene is unwavering.
“We’ve been able to host two of the recent poets laureate, first Ted Kooser and then Charles Simic,” says Memmer. “It’s absolutely fun to have someone that famous come through and have a huge crowd, but even if we could do that every Friday night, we wouldn’t because we still have a commitment to emerging writers and local writers.”
For their part, Ward and Lawler feel the center’s Visiting Author Readings are an indispensable part of the arts scene locally. “It’s a great program. I love coming to Syracuse,” says Ward. “There’s a really rich writer’s community there. People are very warm.”
Lawler concurs. “This is a cultural diamond. It’s a gathering place, it’s an inspirational place,” he says. “The connections that it makes for the community are amazing.”
The Fall 2012 Visiting Author Readings begin on Friday, Oct. 12, at 7 p.m. in the Downtown YMCA, 340 Montgomery St. Admission is free. For more information, call 474-6851, Ext. 328.