Karen Alkalay-Gut


There are some poems that are completed when they are performed.  It's not that they aren't complex, or that they don't work as poems on the page. But they take on a different dimension when they are connected with a person and a situation.  These poems demand a specific atmosphere that is created in the course of the reading.

The first moment of acquaintance, the opening poem of a performance, is a particularly complex context – anticipatory, fragile, and sometimes so overwhelming it frames the rests of the performance.  William Stafford, for example, would begin his reading by holding up the palm of his hand to the audience, and then begin, "Here is my hand."  Because it is an offer of friendship as well as an assertion of openness it determined the audience's warm acceptance of him. It was a gesture of immediate human acquaintance and formed the basis of the relationship to come.  When I heard him read the poem, he even explained that to us, disarming the audience and relaxing himself. 

Anne Sexton, on the other hand, always set a complex mood with her performance of "Her Kind," that assertion of intimacy and distance.




I have gone out, a possessed witch,

haunting the black air, braver at night;

dreaming evil, I have done my hitch

over the plain houses, light by light:

lonely thing, twelve‑fingered, out of mind.

A woman like that is not a woman, quite.

I have been her kind.


I have found the warm caves in the woods,

filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,

closets, silks, innumerable goods;

fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:

whining, rearranging the disaligned.

A woman like that is misunderstood.

I have been her kind.


I have ridden in your cart, driver,

waving my nude arms at villages going by,

learning the last bright routes, survivor,

where your flames still bite my thigh

and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.

A woman like that is not ashamed to die.

I have been her kind.


The vulnerability and weakness of the speaker, coupled with that amazing Joan of Arc image at the end, presents the message of the poet as volunteer martyr, suffering for the rest of us.  Whatever she read after that must have elicited warmth, sympathy and fear.

Lucille Clifton often begins her readings by disarming her audience and endearing them immediately with her poem about her own body.   "Homage to My Hips."


these hips are big hips.

they need space to

move around in.

they don’t fit into little

petty places, these hips

be free hips.

they don’t like to be held back.

these hips have never been enslaved,

they go where they want to go

they do what they want to do.

these hips are mighty hips.

this hips are magic hips.

I have known them

to put a spell on a man and

spin him like a top!


The success of this poem is intensified when she steps away from the podium to show the biographical truth of her poem, and her right to speak of this subject.  It also totally disarms an audience, one who might have been slightly worried about her female and black subjects.


The opening poem of my own readings depends on my audience and the venue, but frequently in the past I was moved to wear a black t shirt with this poem in white letters on it that I read out loud. 


Cover me

I'm going out

to write

a poem.  Keep


over my head.


This is a kind of imprecation.  Help me out – poetry is dangerous and I need your protection to risk this fearful attempt.  This only works as an opening poem to an audience used to my personality, or tuned to the mutuality in the activity I'm suggesting .  Of strangers, this poem asks too much.  An opening poem works better with a mutual subject.  Even if it's personal, it should be something that others can identify with.

I used to use a poem that aimed for that mutuality of subject.  It had no title and I would just begin.    

I'm so glad we're not virgins

Or have to pretend ignorance,

Decorum.  I mean you know and I know

We've been through or seen or dreamed it all.


Look, I've given birth

Facing an open door to a busy hallway

Split the front of my dress before an audience like you,

Said the very thing I was afraid I'd say, promised not to say

(And heard about it from my aunt the very next day), shamed

My parents, and my children,

Time and time again

And lived through it all

And confess it all

And laugh.


What pretensions to propriety could I have?


And you - you've heard this kind of thing before

Maybe not here, not from me

But how different can what you've lived or will live be

From what I know or will

So we can relax - treat one another like cats

Who smell impersonally, affectionately,

The private parts of guests.


The function here of this poem is to establish a shared experience that allows a mutual adventure in future poems.  Of course it's also trying to establish a different kind of relationship than the kind that one encounters in a 'poetry reading.' The limitation of this poem – as an introduction – is that its apparent exposure of 'personal details' doesn’t leave enough space, enough distance, for some audiences to form a relationship.  

Last year I tried using a more simple and performative poem – an expression of my absent-mindedness and my surprise that I made it to the stage. 


Let me think –where

did I put it – I know

I came in with a poem


All my thoughts

Like brittle tinder

gathered to a bundle

by a slim gold cord


Maybe it’s in one of those

hidden pockets maybe

deep in the bottom

hiding under my keys


Perhaps it fell from my bag

on my way to the stage


Did you happen

to see it –


on the floor beside your chair:


awkward, inappropriate,

wrinkled and perhaps even


but still





Audiences often react well to this poem.  But I've come to realize that I don't like myself in the cutesy prematurely senile image I project here.  It doesn't start me off right for myself.  So maybe I'll go back to one of my old standards, like "Summer, 1990,"

SUMMER 1990     


That summer I wore nail polish that was almost black

and twisted and turned in the puzzles of names

and sought order in woman's life and the idea of life

while the woman I loved most turned away in her dying.

That summer my protege left and I met with old friends 

and found the oldest of them empty or evil.

That summer Mellors went back to France 

and I didn't say goodbye or tell him I'd cared.

That summer a man fell so strangely in love 

and I watched his writhing and felt nothing,

understood and didn't care 

enough, though I myself have endured obsessions

as helpless and sad as his for me.

That summer I slept alone more

than I've slept alone since I've known you

and spent more sleepless nights than I've ever known,

though you held me and loved me deeper than ever. 

That summer the betrayal of blood linked me with a family 

I had thought half a world and a generation away.

That summer I dreamt the stones grouped together

and growled as I passed, and I shouted "no no" in my sleep 

but the stones though I knew they could not destroy

followed me to the gate of waking.

That summer my companions were vampires from books,

especially LeStat, stalking the streets of New Orleans.

That summer someone dead kept whispering

"This is what you deserve ‑- this pays you back

for pretending ignorance for so long," 

and I looked at the blurred photo of us -‑ 

with my back to him in his white gown

and begged -‑ not forgiveness but peace -‑

and even in the photo he said: "Say goodbye

to whatever peace you desired.  This

is what you deserve ‑- it will kill you

but you'll know what it is like to feel.

That summer I wore blackberry lipstick

and my face was pale and I didn't dare hope

the summer would end without agony.


I like the mysterious details in it, the hints of great drama that may be elaborated on later in the reading.  But it's literally out of date.

            So I guess I have to keep on searching for the perfect opening poem, something that I haven't written yet.

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