I wouldn’t rule out performing poetry again, like I did from 1986 to 2004, but I don’t think I would do it unless there were either discussion or dancing, and preferably both. Discussion is probably easier to achieve in the standard literary reading context; it’s more “affordable.” So, if invited to do a literary reading, I write back and say: Can you publicize it as a discussion, or at least a lengthy Q&A? (as Baraka so masterfully achieved, but even in its own way those events that were documented in that 80s anthology Writing/Talks).
I know I much prefer the experience of hearing one or two pages read and then a Q& A session rather than 15 or 20 in succession (with perhaps some witty asides and digressions). This could become a less autocratic form than the standard reading, more collaborative and improvisatory (like a classroom at its best, without the bothersome grading and accreditation “standards”). It helps unlock the tensions wound tight by great pieces of writing, unleashing its suggestive powers so the conversation can range from politics to poetics to health to love (and/or gender politics)—depending on who is in attendance.
As much as I believe this would breathe fresh air into the stale conventions of the “reading,” I believe that the incorporation of music does even more. Dancing, of course, would not be mandatory. And the incorporation of music, without verbal discussion and a Q&A session may run the risk of being as autocratic as the standard conventional reading by reifying the 4th wall between “audience” and “performer.” But since music is collaborative and includes drums—or even electronic percussion—it has the power to pierce these walls without injury, even while seeming to accept these confines. The institutional conventions we reject provide a useful backdrop and frame; you need an envelope to “push.”
I’m aware my need for one, or preferably both, of these features to become standard in a literary reading context may be perceived as rooted in my own shyness, or lack of confidence in the words being presented, that it exhibits little faith in the “text itself,” and the beauties and possibilities of sustained contemplation afforded by the ways words dance with listeners consciousness against the “white space” of a shared silence (while some have their notebooks, or laptops, out to try to catch the stream). Yet, the incorporation of music and discussion still allows room for this form. It can make some feel comfortable, or more comfortable, than I’ve seen repeatedly in all the fidgeting and wondering when “the post-reading soiree” starts. We can put that “post-reading soiree” in the reading. And, for the visually oriented, at the very least, a painter can be on stage painting while this happens. Okay, now you can argue with me…and I’ll argue with myself too….