Oyster Boy Review 09  
  May 1998
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Word Up Baltimore: A Poetry Collection, by Blair Ewing

Debra Kaufman

Word Up Baltimore: A Poetry Collection.
Blair Ewing.
Maryland Poetry Review Project, 1997.
$11.97 (audio-CD).

A producer of a collection of poetry in an audio format faces the same challenges as an editor of a written collection—that is, which poems to include and in what order—with the additional concerns of sound quality, a poet's reading style, whether to add music or sound effects, whether the recording should have the feel of a live coffee-house reading or be more formal or more intimate, and whether the selected poems will bear repeated listenings. Blair Ewing's heart clearly was in the right place when he arranged this collection, apparently intended to showcase the voices of a wide range of Baltimore-area poets, and the effort shows, though with mixed results.

Recorded here are poems from a few well-known poets (Mark Strand, Josephine Jacobsen, Reed Whittemore), but most are from contemporary local poets, whose contributions include well-crafted, powerful poems (Kathleen Corcoran's "Playground" and Michael Fallon's "Three Stories Down"), performance poems and rants, political/social commentary poems, and ditties seemingly chosen for their novel or humorous aspects.

Listening to the CD for the first time is similar to going to an open reading to which some established poets have been invited. As an audience member, you don't know what to expect, but hope that the delightful moments will balance the mediocre. What makes a poetry reading satisfying for one evening, however, does not necessarily make for a good recording. I quickly grew weary of pieces that relied on performance (Scott Nell's "A Horse Is a Horse") or whose ideas were too obvious (David Bedouin's "Big Baby"). It is the well-crafted and emotionally mature poem—whether read dramatically or simply and unpretentiously—that stays with the listener after repeated listenings. I never tired of Strand's "Old Man Leaves Party," Whittemore's "Black Cross," Kendra Kopelke's "Scream," or Josephine Jacobsen's "Birdsong of the Lesser Poet" (thoughtfully followed by Elliott Coleman's "Aubade," dedicated to Jacobsen).

It's interesting, too, to hear the voice of the poets. There's the young-sounding Virginia Crawford in "Snowpeas in Heaven" following the elderly Chester Wickwire in "Sonnet for a Lost Rose," the overly self-conscious Edgar Silex ("dreamfish"), Bruce Jacobs, delivering just the right mix of humor and anger that's inherent in his poem ("Thirty Years After Watching Johnny Quest on TV"), and the Lord-Buckley-like Hurt Locker ("Altar Boy") ranting—with ukulele!

Adding sound effects or music sometimes was effective, but more often it was intrusive—either by drowning out or distracting from the words or being too literal. In "Queen of Country" Barbara DeCesare is accompanied by a country rhythm, which brings out the poem's playful satire (though the music is too loud and covers over some of the words). But James Taylor's "Because I Didn't Take the Picture" is framed by a camera shutter clicking repeatedly; such literalism is especially annoying because the point of the poem is that no picture was taken.

A few more quibbles: (1) There is not enough time between poems. The listener needs time to absorb the deeper poems—at least, we should get the equivalent of a page being turned. (2) Too many poems (56) are included; if the weaker ones had been culled, the listener could better savor the richer poems. (3) There is no text included. In these days when even the most mediocre songwriter includes a lyric sheet, certainly these poets (and their audience) would be better served if the poems were printed.

Despite its flaws, Word Up Baltimore reflects a sincere effort to record not only the famous poetic voices of Baltimore but also those of the larger community—represented here are the voices of many ages, races, and sensibilities. I applaud Blair Ewing and the Maryland Poetry Review for taking this step toward widening the audience for their local poets. The pleasure of reading a beautifully crafted poem is enhanced when one also gets to hear it read well in the poet's own voice.