Thinking About Poetry Readings & Collaboration In Time Of Cultural Crisis
(for Kiyomi Tanouye, R.I.P)
I haven’t got asked in a long time, but I turned down a poetry reading today. I used to do them all the time. Excuses, excuses. I’m not ready. It’s been over a decade since the last book, “aside from my job, I’ve become a hermit,” etc…..but does the feeling of being crippled, not fully comfortable in body, an awareness of metal where there should be leg, have something to do with it?
One aspect of the PTSD I’ve struggled with since that near fatal accident in 2004 I probably need to come to terms with is a phenomenon you could call “stage fright.” I stopped doing poetry readings when people asked until they stopped asking, but I don’t know if fear is really at the essence of it.
As I lie bedridden, I thought back to the days when I had two good legs, and those long NYC trudges through the brown ice and snow, with a group often as big as 20 (mostly) poets, looking for a bar or restaurant with circular tables for a more democratic post-reading talk than was possible at the places with long thin “last supper style” tables which encourage hierarchical pecking orders. And, during these walks, the conversational pairing off that happened was almost as fun and enlightening as when we finally got to sit in the bar (and occasionally switch seats so we could be social fireflies), but that seemed no longer possible now that such walks were impossible, and, besides the Bay Area is not the walking city NYC was (except perhaps during Litquake or Beastcrawl).
It was often on these walks or restaurants afterwards that I felt that poetry came socially closest to being a collaborative art form (even if, or maybe even because, the conversations were not themselves commodified). In NYC, many mastered the art of talking over someone in order to listen better!
Indeed, the riot of enthusiasms issuing from many inwardly directed writers could be intoxicating, and even detoxifying, like these conversations (even if at times contentious), allowed us to unleash much of that energy pent-up from the protracted solitude our art required. These conversations were also fertile ground for our writing to perhaps unpack or sort or, on the other hand, let exist as fragments (or, in my case, somewhere between; I should probably mention that this was before Facebook did a number on the fragment). This mysterious, and/or even glorious, symbiosis, or see-saw, that could occur between the solitary and the social was on full display here. It was perhaps the closest that poets and novelists could get to that feeling when a bunch of musicians decide that they’re sick of their solo acts, and will gladly settle for only having 2 or 3 songs on an album to be part of a “super group” that can create a sound larger, or deeper, than the sum of its parts.
The “poetry reading” that occasioned this wasn’t really the performance, but rather the pre-text, or as one friend put it, “the poetry reading’s like the emperor’s new clothes,” and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes you need a “thing” (or pre-text) or nothing’s gonna happen.
It’s easy to forget how relatively new the whole standard of the poetry reading is. It wasn’t so big in Williams’ and Stevens’ day. Even O’Hara did relatively few. The so-called “founders” of the American Canon, Dickinson and Whitman demurred, and, as Anselm Berrigan put it back in the 90s, “Catallus never had to go down on a mic.” It rose, perhaps, as a democratizing tendency in the 50s and 60s. I think I embraced it because it could save the page from itself (just as the page could save the stage from itself): When I first started giving readings, I learned it’s always important to read some work you don’t consider finished so you can hear what you sound like trying to say it to a room full of people. You can tell if you come off pretentious, but then some are charmed by what others consider pretentious, and that is probably unavoidable, but a lot of this is happening on an unspoken level, and it doesn’t matter if you’re just projecting because it helps you revise. Perhaps that’s the highest function of the reading?
Yes, I too have enjoyed the speedy wash of words over me, as I stood at the back of St. Mark’s Poetry Project, with Meg Arthurs, swaying and crossing the line, a little too much for some, into dancing, and, yes, feeling the beautiful disorientation and the implied task of later, in solitude, reading the book, if there was a book.
I have loved the readers who aspire more to “stand-up comedy” as well as those who aspire more to prayer (though preferring the more collective Afrocentric notions of praise to the Euro-American dominant forms). And I’m enough of a narcissist to have loved the sound of my electrically amplified voice when I lean into the microphone and recite soft and deep, and then step away from it and get louder and flail. Ah, but what’s a poetry reading without the post-reading soiree? Is it as barren as a computer without an internet?
At the typical poetry reading, the room was mostly filled with other poets. This is largely a group for whom the essence of artistic creation is solitary, individual, and/or “sullen” and/or “nest like,” a community of inwardly directed folks (which is not necessarily synonymous with shy. I speak as one of these people, and am proudly introvert!), and there’s nothing wrong with that! Yet even back in the days when I did many poetry readings (though I aspired to the kind of ‘in between poem’ digressions that Creeley and Baraka often did; word-jazz), I was skeptical about whether the standard ritual and/or institution of the poetry reading did justice to the poems, and I know others felt the same way.
For me, what made a poem on the page such an experience is that I (and I don’t think I’m alone in this) can spend more time on the sentences and lines, and slow down time! I can spend an hour on a poem that you spent 3 minutes reading at the reading (which is much better than spending 5 minutes hogging up or “wolfing” down something you spent 3 hours cooking), and intimately enter into a conversation with it. I can go back and forth between two poems, in two different books, and write while reading, bike around the block to decompress and them come back and read it again. It’s like a solitary sublimated version of the collective moshpit molecule dance, and the walls come a’ crumblin’ down (or are built again, more beautiful, superior---of doors).
At the reading, by contrast, it’s more difficult to catch up with words that some might say “slither while they pass they drift away.” I could latch onto something you said in the third poem, but by the time the reading was over I had forgotten and after the reading we talk and I’m like “wow, there was something really great in your third poem, but I uh…..forget,” and of course some take that as an insult. Or I could sit there, or stand there, taking notes (Bruce Andrews would show by example, and I appreciated that!), but some would take that as an insult….
Ever notice how many times poets apologize if anybody in the audience has heard a poem before, in contrast to musicians? Does anybody else (aside from Kaya Oakes, author of “Why Poetry Readings Suck”) feel that the standard (white) reading creates an event-matrix in which most of the audience feels alienated from the essence of creation, as even perhaps does the one performing his or her poem? And, what alternatives would you suggest? I’m certainly not going to suggest making them On-line! Whatever negative I say about the reading-centric culture, it would be even worse if made more ‘virtual.’
And I could get on my high horse and say that the standard idea of a poetry community mediated socially by the “reading” promotes a climate and a culture of glut, as if we would have been more glamourously, intimately, and efficiently “fed” by the reading if, instead of reading 20 pages in the 20-to-30 minutes allowed, we’d perhaps read one or two pages and then have a discussion about it. This form of distribution would honor the “less is more” aesthetic that poetry often relies on. That does seem to happen on special occasions (like when PennSound has those Poem-talks, and, the model that collection Writing/Talks put together in the late 80s still has potential), but I seriously believe the poetry scene, as a whole, would benefit if we considered doing more of this. I mean, if we’re gathered together to honor the writing, we might as well let the writing come alive verbally (not to snuff out improvisation, but we could even announce the text, or at least one of them, in advance, so people can come prepared with questions).
And if you get to noticing that this starts to sound suspiciously like a classroom, perhaps it’s an occupational hazard. Speaking only for myself, I’ve found the creative writing workshop more collaborative, collective, and communal than 99% of poetry readings. I’m not suggesting we entirely replace the standard reading, but at least ask ourselves ways we could do better, to supplement rather than supplant. Not that “getting” the words the way you do when reading in solitude is always the most important aspect of the performance if the sound of the reader can evoke a feeling, and, certainly, if the reading includes music, to engage our bodies, I have no problem with not “getting” all the words.
Maybe I’ll do a reading again, but I feel I need music, and not simply phanopiea….. Music, at its performative essence, makes more room for call and response, and is more collaborative and democratic. Despite the much touted biopic stories or legendary bands breaking up because of “egos” or “musical differences” (to say nothing of record labels trying to play band members off each other to double their profits), looking at the way music operates socially from the perspective of “the poetry scene,” the fact that these bands even got together in the first place almost becomes a superhuman feat of collectivism! That’s partially because there’s a different ontology proposed than for poetic creation. Since the creation of the artifact happens more collectively, on a de facto (if not quite de jure, alas) level, there’s a more visceral democracy in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; sure, our solitary art may have helped prepare us for it, but it’s easier to break down some walls between individuals as well as the audience and the performer.
But collaboration in poetry is generally considered a novelty, or “something extra;” it’s a stunted art compared to music. It’s certainly more difficult (if not impossible) to argue that it is the essence of poetic creation, but maybe poetry readings or “poetry scenes” could benefit if we encouraged more collaboratively written poems (combining lyric and narrative perhaps). We could demand that every MFA program have at least one course in collaboratively written poems (or that each graduate thesis must include at least 20% collaborative poems), and there should be more book contests for collaborative pieces. I believe such modest proposals could help combat the tyranny of essentialism and individualism that so many poets, on paper at least, are right to call out but that nonetheless haunts much of the literary world, on a “poetics of institutional structural level” that many resign themselves to. It could also help create a larger audience for poetry if you’re into that kind of thing.
Feel free to argue with me, or to refuse, but I believe it could have positive aesthetic and ethical consequences, even if we stop shy of pooling our resources for a live/work/performance venue to help revitalize local culture in an era when Big Tech is doing its best to destroy what’s left of it. Or, I could get all manifesto like, and say, “we demand a moratorium on all poetry readings that are not either dance shows, or organizational meetings”—but it’s probably better to make it a character in a polyvocal poem or piece of “flesh fiction.” Music, of course, is often an organizational meeting even when it’s not (just as music therapy is often more effective when it’s not called that), especially in times of cultural crisis, and, again, I think of Kiyomi Tanouye, who perished in the Oakland warehouse fire of 2016. She had a knack for creating multi-genre events in which introverts and extroverts could meet from the ground up in which the poets don’t feel crowded out by the dancers.