“Poems crucified on the wall, dissected, their bird-wings severed like trophies,” a woman reads aloud from a worn book. “No one lives in this room without living through some kind of crisis.”
It’s a sleepy Sunday afternoon, but Deep Vellum Books is packed. The readers use no microphones. Except for murmurs at especially poignant lines, the audience is hushed, caught up in the words of the late feminist poet Adrienne Rich. To the side, Dallas novelist and poet Joe Milazzo follows along in his copy, nodding and smiling. This event is his vision at work.
The concept behind Other People’s Poetry (or OPP) is simple, but innovative: at each event, local poets read one classic book of poetry by a dead author. Surprisingly, this seems to be unique in Dallas. Most literary events focus on the new or up-and-coming; Milazzo wanted to acknowledge important past works that have fallen out of oral tradition. He was also inspired by the repertory model seen in theater and music and by the marathon readings of The Reading Room’s Karen Weiner.
When Deep Vellum Books opened in 2016, Milazzo saw an opportunity for collaboration. Deep Vellum, he knew, would benefit from programming that built an audience at the bookstore and tied into its actual inventory. He, in turn, could bring attention to the Dallas literary community and help connect its many branches.
“Most writers are introverts,” Milazzo says. “[Writing] can be very lonely work, and it’s useful to know that there are other people out there in your community that you can connect with about this one thing that’s really important to you.”
OPP programs include bios of all the readers, introducing them to fellow readers and writers who wouldn’t otherwise find each other.
When choosing poets for the readings, Milazzo recognizes the power of name recognition—popular writers like Sylvia Plath command a built-in audience—but he also wants to highlight poets who are less well-known, especially those who have inspired him personally. He sometimes compromises by choosing one of a popular writer’s lesser-known works. Today’s reading, for example, is Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language, rather than her more famous Diving into the Wreck.
Occasionally a bell jingles as people leave or enter the store, or chairs squeak as one reader takes their seat and another stands. Each reader brings a different flavor to their poem—theatrical, quiet, or ragged with vulnerability. The audience responds with applause, laughter, or spontaneous exclamation.
Milazzo solicits most of the readers himself, choosing local poets, with an eye for diversity. That means poets of a wide age range and from as many different communities as possible, poets with established careers and unpublished poets who are just starting out. The poet being read also influences his choices.
“I always ask myself, ‘What’s the most interesting mix of people for this poet?’” he says. For the Sylvia Plath event, for example, he intentionally included some male readers, and paid special attention to the ethnicities of the readers for Bob Kaufman, the black Beat poet. He tries to avoid repeating readers.
Readings have already been chosen for OPP’s second season, which is set to begin this fall, and Milazzo plans to continue the project as long as possible. He feels strongly about finding funding so that he can pay the readers—even if it’s only a token amount—to acknowledge the value of their work. Reminding people of the value of the literary arts is, in many ways, his mission. “We think about reading and enjoyment of literature as a thing that you do in school,” he says. “Then you go out in the real world and you get a job and you don’t have time for that anymore…if nothing else, going to one of these events might allow you to reconnect with and reignite that passion.”
Ninety minutes and thirty-nine poems later, one last round of applause breaks the spell. The sunlight is waning in the streets of Deep Ellum, and Adrienne Rich was right: none of us leave without contemplating the nature of poetry, the drive to connect, and the dream of a common language.