Book (Reading) Diary: Mary Jo Salter

I thought that this was the first poetry reading I had ever attended until my sister reminded me of the one I was at recently where I myself gave a reading.  I think I must have been so nervous that my memory had turned any recollection of it into a kind of neurological version of that screen that Channel 4 used to put up in the early hours of the morning, after transmission had ended.  Anyway, attending and listening is different to attending and performing, so in that way it was still a first.

There is a lovely tri-lingual (French, English and Spanish) bookshop near to my apartment, run by a Yorkshireman and a French woman.  Their website says that they both used to work at the famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris.  They run events in the shop, like the one I attended, which was a reading by the poet Mary Jo Salter.  I was shallowly impressed by all her accolades, which led me to choose this event to attend over all the other events in the shop during January, but warmly and authentically impressed by her work and her presence.

The economy of her language and the careful placement of each word within each poem, along with her beautiful voice and thoughtful delivery, really did mesmorise me.  This piece (and Salter’s reading of it) made a particular impression:


You looked up from your book, and apropos 

of nothing, asked: Did I ever tell you I played tennis once in the snow?

   No, I said.  You didn’t. Where was this?

Tennis in the snow! you said again.

It was … in Colorado.  No, in Kansas.

I was a young captain

   Did you win?

I don’t know.  I’d play this guy at the base.  

Marty.  I can see us laughing,

slipping and sliding all over the place.

   Were tennis balls still white back then?

(A smile from you.)  No, they were yellow

already.  This was the late eighties.

It wasn’t all that long ago.

   Oh, I said.  That’s a shame.

   I’m picturing the big white flakes

   whirling around, and part of the game

   was that you guys could hardly tell the difference between falling snow

   and the big white fuzzy tennis ball

   or even the full moon that would seem

   to lob over the net that night,

   like a movie or a dream

It was daytime, you said.  Nice story, though.

   Sorry, I said.  I should leave it there.

   I just wanted to be mixed up in it,

  the place where your memories are.

After her poems there was a question and answer session and, as with her readings, equally with her answers, she conveyed a steadiness, an assurance in what she was saying, even when asked whether poetry was a dead form (to which she answered – although she said a few years ago she wouldn’t have – that she believed poetry was unkillable).  She said also, of the act of writing, that we should try (those among the audience that were aspiring writers) to be authentic, be observant and always keep in mind the importance of structure, which I found encouraging as it made it all sound so much more doable.

Must go to more of these events.


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