The Live Poets Society

“It’s a funny thing about stage fright,” the old woman to my left whispered to her neighbor. “It goes against all reason.”

Katia Mitova, a Bulgarian professor and writer who teaches at the Graham School and a close friend of the three of the poets who were set to read last Thursday night at 57th Street Books, seemed to agree. Mitova is chicly dark-bobbed, iPad-toting and, like the performing poets, a member of Virtual Artist’s Collective (VAC) Poetry, a web site that connects a handful of poets spread out across the country.

The poets in question, Paul Friedrich, Elizabeth Raby, and Steven Schroeder, have all been published by VAC, which puts out no more than two or three of its hand-bound chapbooks a year. VAC operates on a strict smaller-is-better basis, and the gathering stayed true to this philosophy: twelve people sat on metal folding chairs in Room Three of the bookstore. Patrons of the bookstore would wander into the reading, stay for a few poems, and then move on.

Mitova was the emcee of the reading; she introduced all three poets. Friedrich, whose appendix burst last week, couldn’t be at the reading, so Mitova read for him. It’s difficult to do justice to another poet’s work, because poetry intensely belongs to the person who writes it. Yet Mitova knew Friedrich’s poems inside and out, and recited his stories with so much care that they might as well have been her own. She spoke of Friedrich’s lifelong devotion to the goddess Aphrodite, and read an adorable haiku of his: “Hummingbirds must cross/ The deep Gulf of Mexico–/ I must be with you.”

Raby offered a sassy, soulful contrast to her more academic male counterparts. “She’s one of those poets who are poets when they’re children, but it takes them a while to develop,” Mitova joked. “She notices what everyone notices, but she sees the poetry in it.” Of one piece, Raby, who is plump and pale-haired, giggled, “This one is my naughty poem.” She also read a poem about her friend Thalia doing a dance routine at a strip club.

Schroeder, meanwhile, spoke from beneath his beard, which quivered and undulated as he read emphatically. He began sitting down, but soon stood up, insisting on his needs “to pace while I’m reading.” Unlike Raby’s work, which was clearly drawn from experience, Schroeder preferred to play with words, pacing and rhyming like a seasoned slam poet. He read a poem inspired by a student who asked him, “What is blue?”

Though the reading was intimate and sincere, Mitova loomed a bit too large in its landscape; she introduced all three poets and read from Friedrich’s work. Her dominance amplified her friend’s absence. It was a real shame that Friedrich’s ruptured appendix left him stricken, far from the slam. But, as Raby wrote, “The desire to fly away from the body does not make it possible.”