The Voicing of Literature: the Water*Stone Readiing

Last night I attended a “reading” of works from the recent issue of Water*Stone, published by Hamline University’s MFA Program in Writing. Since I’m an occasional teacher in the overarching program called Graduate Liberal Studies, I have a stake in the journal’s success.

I’ve been attending literary readings for decades–yes, I admit it–it’s been this long. For perhaps the last four years, I’ve also been listening to books on disc every night while I stretch, soak my eyes, take vitamins, etc. It’s a great way to clear away the nags and spars of the day and encourage a rich flow of sleep. This experience has netted me two favorite readers: Nelson Runger and Flo Gibson.

Both these readers have what we’d call gravelly voices, voices with glints and many sharp edges. They do not run mellifluously (whew! lots of l’s) along, those honey-toned voices that eventually put you to sleep, as mead did the Greeks, mead being liquor made of honey. I’ll also add as two of my favorite literary voices, David McCullough, the author of wonderfully alert and energetic history books, and Toni Morrison, especially reading her book of all books, the novel Beloved. Unlike these two, most authors I’ve found do not make the best oral presenters of their work.

Recently I listened to Flo Gibson read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Within the rather narrow range of the novel, set in Sir Bertram’s home and grounds, with one late incursion into poverty amid the seaside Portsmouth family of the novel’s main character Fanny Price, there are characters with widely divergent intelligences and experience. Sir Bertram has just returned from Antigua. Lady Bertram, the languid, voices her way through life with repetitive and quiet requests. Her sister, Mrs. Norris, could not be more sharp-tongued, opinionated, insistent on pre-eminence (though, of course, she doesn’t deserve it–she’s the splinter stuck in the novel’s side, constantly annoying and ultimately infected!) Fanny herself is quiet, submissive, yet her inner life is full of alarms, passions, and growing moral intelligence. Then there is Edmund, her slightly older cousin, Sir and Lady Bertram’s second son, who becomes Fanny’s champion in the family, her confidante, and at the very very end, her husband. Across this well-regulated family flashes the Crawfords, Mary and Henry–two delightful though spoiled orphans brought up by the unregenerate rake Admiral Crawford. These two bring London life and morals into the Northamptonshire community.

Flo Gibson renders the intricacies of Jane Austen’s small world to humorous perfection with her gravelly range–soft and subdued for Fanny and the same though flatter for Lady Bertram. Sharp-edged and noisy for Mrs. Norris, deeper and commanding for Sir Bertram, reflective and encouraging or worried for Edmund, then for Mary and Henry Craqford, a harder, brighter tone with slightly faster delivery. She also captures to perfection Fanny’s Portsmouth mother who whines and droops under the weight of her alcoholic husband’s inadequacies–also rendered with bluff believability. Though far from the range of Dickens’ Oliver Twist, which Flo Gibson also delivers with astonishing and varied accents, her version of Mansfield Park gives substance and the play of motion, light and shadow, along with the ever-increasing moral complication of the story. It’s a remarkable achievement.

Now back to the Water*Stone reading. There were some excellent voices. I’ll single out my friend Morgan Grace Willow for her presentation of her essay “Signs of the Time,” about a Minneapolis gang murder of a hapless young dear black man. With her long experience of signing for the deaf, Morgan has also created a clear vocal delivery which is easy to hear and helps the story develop its own momentum. We are sorry to have her stop. Many many of the poetry readers did not do justice to their work: their voices either too low or too fast or too wispy. Robert Bly, MInnesota’s first poet laureate, used to ask “Want to hear that again?” after just finishing reading a poem. Some of us used to groan because his first delivery was rich and maybe a bit too cadenced, but perfectly intelligible. I could have heard many of the Water*Stone poems a second, even a third time.

One of the prose readers, June Melby, had a bad throat and made the excellent decision to ask one of the editors to read for her. Her piece, “Take a Break for a Delicious Sno-Cone,” sent many of us in the audience into amused chuckles and murmurs. It was my husband’s favorite piece. Why? Because he could hear every word distinctly.

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