The Laurence Dunbar poetry reading Tuesday night was barely a reading at all.
Poet Herbert Woodward Martin barely stayed in front of the podium. He skipped to its side, sliding his feet, snapping his fingers, stuttering, laughing and even pausing to sing the brief intrusions of hymns in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “When Malindy Sings.”
Martin said his dramatic performance of Dunbar was inspired by African American poet and writer Margaret Walker’s performance of Dunbar.
“I heard her read it a long time ago,” Martin said. “She read Dunbar like no one read Dunbar.”
Soprano Minnita Daniel-Cox and collaborative pianist Jennifer Cruz also graced the stage with musical versions of Dunbar’s poetry.
The event, which took place in the Music Building, was sponsored by the department of English language and literature and the College of Humanities and Social and Behavioral Sciences. About 50 people attended the event.
English language and literature professor Maureen Eke said they decided to showcase Dunbar’s poetry for Black History Month because of how important Dunbar’s impact was, not only in terms of African-American poetry, but in regards to poetry as a whole.
“In a lot of ways, his poetry serves a lot of functions,” Eke said. “He was doing a lot of writing in dialect but also portraying historical experience.”
Dunbar’s poetry covered several topics throughout the night including religion, slavery, love and loss. Even humorous pieces were read. Daniel-Cox said what attracted her to Dunbar’s poetry were the various emotions present in the music.
“I let the text guide me,” Daniel-Cox said. “I used what Dunbar wrote and the emotions he probably felt. I think in general, we never feel just one emotion … joy, disappointment, frustration, hopelessness; it’s all very present in his poetry.”
Martin also acknowledged the depth of emotion in Dunbar’s poetry and said it gives the poetry its depth.
“It is at once very profound and very serious,” Martin said. “But, then, you think he’s having a great time dancing and singing at it all, but I think he isn’t.”
Freeland senior Sarah Reames said she found Daniel-Cox’s performance breathtaking.
“I thought her voice was powerful and amazing,” Reames said. “I could never hit those notes.”
Kerry Myers, a Midland senior who attended the event with Reames, said she found Martin’s performance equally entrancing.
“I thought his energy was very contagious,” Myers said. “He was so excited, and that attitude; I was like, ‘That’s awesome.’”