The University of Iowa

At the Reading: Oni Buchanan and Jon Woodward

By Denise Jarrott

There's something ancient and strange about sitting in a room full of people, listening to another person read aloud from their work. I've been interested for awhile in the sometimes stark difference between reading a book to oneself and listening to a public reading. Sometimes, the experience feels akin to going to the theater: raw, fragile, and, at best, a little bit dangerous. Both the reader and the audience have to give something of themselves, and it is that intimacy I want to explore.

Oni Buchanan and Jon Woodward

Listen: Oni Buchanan and Jon Woodward reading | Jan. 26, 2013

I attended Oni Buchanan and Jon Woodward's reading with two friends, one of which, an undergrad history major, had never gone to a poetry reading. We were seated a bit awkwardly to the side in white resin chairs. The experience can be a bit uncomfortable, unfamiliar, or even too intense for non-writers, but my history major friend was visibly pleased with her experience.

The pairing of these two poets was apt: both wrote with both animals and music in mind, but both poets express this interest in vastly different ways: Jon Woodward works for the Harvard Museum of Contemporary Zoology, and his book, Uncanny Valley includes a poem about half of a horse seen through a matter transporter. The juxtaposition of animals and technology find their channel through sound.

Jon Woodward's first words were "Oh, people!" and his momentum continued upward. A slight man in a yellow sweater, he held the audience's attention through the changes in sound: from echoes to speech impediments repeated though a haze of sleep to the ticking of a clock to the clicking of a camera. I seemed aware of the passing of hours and the absurdity of measuring time though seconds, hours, days. Even if the words in Woodward's poems were not literally repeated, the last word of each poem seemed to reverberate.

Oni Buchanan, in addition to being a published poet, is also a concert pianist. If I had not known this before her reading, I may have guessed that she was a musician that played an instrument that required her to shift her body to accommodate to that instrument. Her work is also rhythmically motivated. Another clue to her musical life were the silences between poems, which reminded me of the silence between pieces of music.

Her poetry follows a similar pattern in that her poems seem to work through "movements" as symphonies or sonatas tend to do. Her poses also shifted as the poems shifted. Her voice was tender, as if the poems themselves were wild animals, quivering before an audience, or a swarm of insects passing through the air. In her title poem, Must a Violence, each repeated anaphora sang in the air, and it seemed as though she was handing each of us a verse, a gift.

Oni Buchanan is the author of Must a Violence and Jon Woodward is the author of both Rain and  Uncanny Valley.

Listen: Oni Buchanan and Jon Woodward reading | Jan. 26, 2013