Poetry was born from the voice. As most of us learn early on, the oldest western works were first tossed around from storyteller to listener, endlessly retold until eventually captured by the written word. But even this isn’t necessarily the version of record, with alternate manuscripts and regular re-translations enacting a ceaseless textual tango. Most works don’t get this kind of perennial re-engagement, and those that do come from the likes of Homer or Sherazade; generational hive minds that are no single person. These tales were recited, some for centuries, alive only in the telling.
We are still drawn to those natural storytellers, but as Atlas Obscura recently reported, verbal deliverance of verse has hit something of a repetitive rut. Poet Voice is real, and is sucks, though I contest that many poets simply aren’t trained in the art of oration. It’s expected that if we can write, we can probably read aloud, and after attending more than a few monotonous nights of slumbering hypnosis bad habits can’t help but seep in.
But plenty of poetry still years to cantor off the page and through our mind, and deserves an opportunity to shine as such. Thankfully, Kevin Young over at The New Yorker agrees, and recently facilitated the first in a series of online poetry experiments that appear to attempt merging the textual and aural lives of poetry. They recently posted “Envelopes of Air,” a split chapbook of epistolary letter-poems between Ada Limón and Natalie Diaz with illustrations by Rachel Levit Ruiz. The poets each have four poems, each with recordings by the respective author, accompanied by phantasmagorically tender drawings.
There’s a long history of epistolary poems I won’t presume to break down, but this project is fascinating in that they are poem-letters between poets in an exchange that exists to be read by each other as well as non-participatory parties. Traditionally, a reader could mostly hope for a letter written with no reply either expected or published, which is to say it’s a performance of communication, expressive but not receptive, a simple gesture towards dialogue. This collection is a poetic dialogue with both sides, where Diaz and Limón are explicitly communicating with each other and we are shepherded along, aloft on the atmosphere that extends between them.
These two aren’t merely talking about their day, though that’s part of it. They’re thinking through each other, sharing histories, pains, desires, oxygen—the elements that sustain life and give it spice. The poems are loose, meandering in a way that finds purpose rather than fulfilling it, but that’s not to say the lines aren’t crafted—it’s that the grain of living shows in every line, the verse feels weighted with the daily and the divine.
I think, as much as I adore Limón and Diaz, my favorite part of this project is the twining of reading and listening. While both might be accused of a dash of poet voice, to hear them alternate poems while reading along really accentuates their individual ticks, their lenses on the world, which align on several tracks. But the clarity of their language is at its most affective when it floods multiple senses, being able to follow along while they read, forcing me to really hone in on their work rather than wander off into my own headspace.
The parallelism between their readings and their writings is a singular digital experience that really tags down in an interesting, invigorating way. By coupling line with voice, the power of two women poets conversant through, around, and wound around each other enhances the entire project. There are histories of poets on wax, poets writing letters, but Diaz and Limón blast past the time-space rift between themselves and the written and audible word. This solidifies the two in twain, the joy of reading along with the voice in your head that isn’t yours, allowing it to speak to you even if you weren’t the one addressed. To me the purpose of poetry is to try and transmit the untranslatable thoughts from one brain to another, and “Envelopes of Air” feels like the closest approximation of that desire in action, the possibility of a new Homer.
Photo by Tyler Spaeth on flickr.