Tom Hibbard, Wisconsin all-star

So I recently wrote a post about Douglas Kearney that focused a lot on how much I like his high-energy delivery and reading style.  To kind of add onto that, though, I’d like to look a little bit at the poet Tom Hibbard, one of the Wisconson home-growns I can’t get enough of out here.  Like Kearney, Hibbard has poetry and a reading style that are totally electric.  But they have an entirely different electricity going on than anyone intentionally working theatrics or performance into their readings.  Hibbard’s poetry is as challenging, nuanced and current as any other contemporary poet I’ve read.  In fact, I found it so current and with current that I was surprised (and this exposes a discrimination in me) when I met him and found out he was much older than I’d assumed.  He’s also from a more rural part of Wisconsin, another surprise to me, another personal bias exposed.  I recently got to see Hibbard read for my second time, though, and that’s what I’d like to focus on here.

Because his work, to me, for some reason or another, suggested a younger, possibly insane and haywire poet (his poetry bangs out gymnastics and leaps with every line), when I got to hear him read his poems later, they became very different experiences for me.  Unlike the fast-pace and jarring nature of Douglas Kearney, the most striking thing I noticed about the first Hibbard reading I saw was he literally looked up from the page once, and this was a full length reading.  He looks and speaks into his manuscript, he has the demeanor of a tired pumpkin farmer and, when he reads his poems, you may or may not have to crane your neck to hear him, depending on the setting.  Right.  All of the Poetry 101 don’ts when it comes to giving readings.  The thing is, both times I’ve seen Hibbard read, the whole audience is totally mesmerized and, afterwards, he seems to be the one people remark upon most.  There’s something in his total lack of pretention and his stripped delivery of the work that just pressurizes the room and makes for a reading that sinks in quick and profound.  Calling his qualities awkwardness or shyness wouldn’t be incorrect, necessarily, but those terms just can’t do a justice to what happens when he reads.  I’ve talked with the poet Abe Smith before about how good readings can be when it becomes evident the reader is having to work hard just to maintain (see Aaron Kunin for a breathtaking example of this) and that may be what Hibbard’s magic stems from–the struggle one senses not just in his presenting to an audience, but in making the poems themselves, poems that never strike me as arbitrary, but personally exhausting to write.  Hibbard doesn’t mess around.  He’s on a mission.  He’s doing it to wake people up.

Ironic, for a reader so quiet and sleepy, a reader with his tempered pace.  A reader who, as I say, people need to lean in and crane their neck to hear, depending.  But both times I’ve heard Hibbard read, I was dumbfounded at how the pace he set was so immediately followed by everyone else.  The room hushes to pure silence.  People’s breathing even gets shallower.  And, for whatever reason, if it is necessary to crane your neck to hear him, you can guarantee every ear will drift in his direction like a magnet.  There’s the distinct feeling something important is being said and someone very important is saying it.  There’s a strange, sudden, tribal sensation and all because this man won’t look at you or raise his voice.

Tom's book out on Otoliths Press

I took this video of him reading at Myopic Books during a Chicago/Wisconsin reading that he and I were both part of (Larry Sawyer, who runs the series, is the announcer).  I’m really happy with how wild this video turned out.  Not only is Hibbard angel back-lit the whole time, giving a heavenly aura to his Menard’s hat and stray hairs but, while he’s evoking in his poetry the powers of nature, a major hail storm pops off in the broad daylight and adds percussion to his words.

I love unique, distinctive reading styles–I’m always so refreshed to come across one–but I don’t think high energy or intentional performance is the only way that can be accomplished.  It’s never quite the same on video, but judge for yourself:

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