watch this beautiful child
(cross-posted at Very Like A Whale)
(Cross-posted from Very Like A Whale) Interesting reading from the folks at Commercial Poetry:
… poetry sales figures make it abundantly clear that no one buys poetry without performance of that poem, of that poet’s work or of poetry in general. Aside from the paltry numbers involved, the model of publishing a tome and then doing readings for a few dozen friends and fellow poets fails for two reasons:
- it must be a performance, not a reading; and,
- it is ass-backwards: live, film or theatrical production comes before any expectation of profitable text publication.
This was true even in poetry’s heyday. Shakespeare’s plays were not collected and published until well after he retired. How many copies would his scripts have sold without production? Just as you don’t buy MP3s of songs/artists you’ve never heard, interest in individual poets usually began with seeing their work performed, not necessarily by the poet*. If enough of that writer’s work caught your fancy you might buy the book or catch the author on tour. Contrast that to poetry’s status quo: to no one’s surprise, people who have never encountered a contemporary poem being performed competently are not enthused about reading any particular poem or poetry in general. How many Superbowl tickets are purchased by those who have never seen a football game?
I especially love the footnote corresponding to the asterisk above:
* The notion that anyone other than the author would want to perform a contemporary poem seems utterly foreign to today’s poets. As long as this is the case there is no hope for poetry’s reanimation.
A long Jacket article by Nick Moudry on poetry readings urges more scholarly attention to poetry readings and discusses their contemporary purpose, among other things. Some interesting extracts from a Voice Alpha perspective:
The poet John Giorno is fond of telling a story about attending a poetry reading with Andy Warhol in the early 1960s during which Warhol remarked, “It’s so boring. Why does it have to be so boring?” Anyone who has been to more than a handful of poetry readings has probably felt the same way at some point in his or her life. Giorno’s point is that the average poetry reading — where a lone reader stands in front of a podium reading his or her poems in a fairly monotone delivery — fails to create a spectacle capable of captivating contemporary audiences. Nonetheless, poetry readings survive, like genetically modified soybeans resilient to all manner of pesticides. I would argue that this resilience comes from the fact that poetry readings create — to adapt Benedict Anderson’s term — “imagined communities.” Anderson coins the term in his discussion of the role that literature plays in the development of nation-states. These communities, Anderson argues, are “imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” The members of the communities created by poetry readings may know a higher percentage of their peers than the members of small nations, but the mental union is still very much the same. [...]
The featured performers — whose work is occasionally unknown to many audience members — and their performance itself are sometimes secondary to the events surrounding the performance: milling around and chatting before and after the reading, heading to a bar after the event’s organizers shoo everyone out of the original venue, and so on. I am not saying that the performers are not sometimes a big draw, but even in those cases the performance itself is often secondary. [...]
Similarly, recent developments in technology have allowed greater access to historical poetry readings — the University of Pennsylvania’s PennSound site, for example, offers a large number of poetry readings available to anyone with an Internet connection — but it would be nice to know to what use people were putting these recordings. Are they being used primarily for pedagogical purposes, or are people putting them on their iPods and listening to them on their morning commutes?
A Carolyn Forché reading up at the Poetry Foundation today. She reads well:
3 min 24 secs
I also LOVE this 1992 reading, which is part reading and part recitation from memory. What a performance!
Attending reading series with the devotion of a zealot has not only enabled me to construct the supportive network my writing life so lacked, it has also—and I never saw this coming—improved my work. Whether a writer steps behind a microphone to brave a cheapo sound system and a sea of empty chairs, or alights before a standing-room-only crowd; something important happens when a writer shares his work out loud. There are lessons to be learned from attending reading series. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
This is just charming. The project author writes:
I don’t know all that much about poetry – but I found this book – or rather, it found me – I walk around town with it, along with my little camera. I ask people on the street or where ever I go if they would like to read a poem from the little book – to my pleasant surprise most say yes.
What I like best about this project is at the very end when people finish reading the poem, there is an expression on their faces – a look of something genuine, and, well, I don’t know, innocence maybe… something pure meeting the threads of the self-conscious.
It’s nice to see people trying hard, struggling a bit, reflecting in the moment and then seeing that transition from introspection clash reality.
I think this is why everyone enjoys some kind of poetry, it lifts you up and out – there’s no helping it..
The year-long project started in July and seems to be posting a reading a day on both You Tube and Vimeo. Reminiscent of How Pedestrian, another poetry out loud website we interviewed here on Voice Alpha , but with its own unique approach. I don’t know exactly which book of poems forms the basis for the project, but I’m guessing it’s something Oxford Book Of English Verse-ish. Watch random passers-by obligingly read Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Gray, Blake, etc for the camera. And it’s true about people’s expressions when they look up after finishing their reading. Just delightful.
A quick post here to link to an article on poetry readings from Jess Lacher at the Kenyon Review blog:
“Whatever happened to the sort of reading out loud we got when we were kids– when your mom talked in a monster’s voice, when the scary parts became whispers and there was relief in her voice when the day was saved? Here’s an idea: treat your audience like the exhausted child-brains they are…”
Although some of her tips have been discussed here before, her goal and attitude about readings being for the AUDIENCE, not the poet, are worth a read.
Find her post here.
No one cares about public readings — unless, apparently, they’re delivered via telephone. Or so one might conclude by reading, first, a new screed at the New York Observer by Michael H. Miller, “No One Cares About Your Reading“:
Is it a coincidence that this is how parents get their children to go to sleep? It is a dark fate, indeed, the reading that drags on and on, where the only person who has lost interest more than the audience is the author, the room lost in a purgatory of pauses for laughter, met by awkward silences. [...] While these turgid, awkward, too-often sexless events are an evil necessity, not enough people enjoy them to justify their existence.
“Turgid, awkward, too-often sexless events” — I love it! This guy really knows how to pen a screed.
Miller does concede that poetry is something of an exception, although he quotes Paul Muldoon to slam the frequent practice of poets “trying out new work” at readings. On the whole, the article comes down firmly on the side of those who prefer performances to readings.
It turns out, many of the best readings have very little to do with reading. In Boston, Rick Moody and Wesley Stace performed together, singing songs and sharing stories. According to Mr. Stace, the event was a rousing success. Both “readers” had forgotten their books in the hotel room.
Bookstore readings — like brick-and-mortar bookstores themselves — are probably on the way out. But that’s not the only way to use a live reading to interest the public in your work, as Heather Christle’s recent experience suggests. To promote her second book of poetry, The Trees The Trees (published by Portland, Oregon-based Octopus Books), she set up a tumblelog with a schedule for the first two weeks of July, offering to read poems over the phone to anyone who calls up during the posted hours (which are very generous). The response has been surprisingly enthusiastic, including coverage in Salon, on the BBC World Service’s Newshour, and in the Guardian:
“The book itself is full of references to phones and phone calls, and the speaker often seems to mistake the technology of the page for that of the telephone, imagining that the reader is right there in the moment,” said Christle. “My father is a merchant mariner, and when my sister and I were small we would record messages to him on cassette tapes. I’d often ask questions and then pause for his response. There’s something so lovely and sad about the hope that another actual person is on the other end of any technology. So I thought it would be interesting to bring that dynamic forward, to read these poems (which frequently address a ‘you’) directly to another person, across the intimate distance a telephone creates.”
So far she has received around 60 calls, from a multitude of different readers, from a couple from Toronto looking for a love poem to a class in western Massachusetts. “I’ve been amazed at how variously people respond. Some callers state quickly that they’re calling for a poem, listen, say thank you, and then promptly hang up. Others want to chat a little bit about the project. I love it when people tell me where they’re calling from. One man called on his break from work, which made me glow. If people seem chatty I’ll often tell them where I am as well, because I think it’s exciting to know that the poem they just heard was read in the middle of the shampoo aisle at the supermarket,” Christle said.
This is a great idea, and I’m glad Christle is getting such good mileage out of it. Obviously there’s a strong novelty factor at play in the publicity, but I still think we can learn from her experience. What other live-reading approaches might we be neglecting? Door-to-door readings around the neighborhood, perhaps? And this new group video chat thing I’m hearing about on Google+ and Facebook sounds like an ideal format for small readings. Maybe we need to stop planning events aimed at large crowds which generally fail to materialize, and instead embrace the intimacy of a microaudience.
(Guest post by Rachel Bunting)
About two weeks ago, I had great fun giving a reading.
Let me explain that statement and why it’s a strange one. I don’t like to give readings. It creates a sense of anxiety in me: Are these the right poems? Am I forgetting to breathe? Is the audience bored? Would I be able to tell? Usually I’m asking myself all these questions while I’m still reading aloud, which means I’m not really present in the moment, not really living the poem as it’s coming out of my mouth. I often sit down at the end of a reading and think, “Oh. Did I just do that?” I dislike that sense of losing time, of being outside it.
But two weeks ago I was invited to read, along with my friend and fellow poet Anna Evans, at the public library in Princeton, NJ. We planned as usual: each prepared for a 20 minute set, choosing our own poems with no discussion. We flipped a coin upon arriving – I would read first. And then that plan fell apart.
We were waiting on a mutual friend’s arrival. About 5 minutes after the reading was due to start, his name appeared on the caller ID of my cell phone: “I’m about 15 minutes out, Rach, can you delay the reading at all?” No, of course we couldn’t. I mentioned to Anna that he was likely going to miss my entire reading (or most of it), and her face lit up. “I have an idea,” she said. And so we decided, in that moment, to alternate. This threw the host for a bit of a loop, but he was gracious and accommodating, introducing us at the same time. I started with two poems, then Anna followed with two of hers, and so on, back and forth, for 40 minutes. We closed with 3 poems each, and then settled in for the open mic.
While the idea of alternating readers is not entirely new (see: this oddly jerky but still relevant video of BJ Ward & Joe Weil doing just that), it’s still not exactly common. I think it worked well for us, and for the audience, for a few reasons.
Anna is mostly known as a formal poet, working a great deal of the time in meter now. She has written more sonnets than I can count, along with her fair share of sestinas, villanelles, rondeaus, triolets, and even a Chant Royal. She writes what we call “guts and knuckles poetry,” the kind of writing that makes you feel something in your stomach, poems that are image-driven, full of the grit that finds us every day, that follows us and sticks between our teeth. On the other hand, I am comfortably situated in the world of narrative free verse, having discovered fairly early on that if I write a sonnet, I need Anna to “fix it” for me before I can show it anywhere else.
Anna is a good reader, with a strong voice full of expression. She avoids the trap of sing-songy readings but even so, she knows to break up her readings with the occasional free verse piece. In alternating our poems, we were able to balance the measured voice of meter against the weight of free verse. This gave Anna the freedom to read almost exclusively from her formal catalog, which is where her voice is strongest these days. And it provided the audience with enough variation that they didn’t tune out when they heard her say “And this is another sonnet…” The audience was engaged through the entire reading.
I think this was pretty important for the reading, as it gave us an opportunity to play off one another. And this is where I really felt the reading was good for me: instead of losing time while wondering if I was engaging enough, I was listening to Anna, and trying to shift the order of my poems to follow off something she’d just said or a tone she’d set. She did the same, and there were two particularly successful transitions: in the first, I read a poem about a loved one’s car accident, a poem that celebrates survival, along with the mundane moments that we don’t acknowledge until we are challenged by some traumatic event; Anna followed on that with a car accident poem of her own, in which she examines guilt, anger and accountability in the wake of a death. Later she shared a beautiful and difficult philosophical meditation that focused on a few French phrases after I read my love letter to a French chef. Our poems presented somewhat opposing, but balanced, views of similar situations, and it was a nice complement.
Considering that we had only about 30 seconds to prepare our sets after deciding to alternate, the transitions were impressive. This is due in part, I’m sure, to our long-standing friendship – we’ve been close friends for about 11 years, and have learned to anticipate each other’s movements and alter our courses as necessary. So imagine the reading we could have planned, given enough notice. As it was, several members of the audience commented on how fun it was that we’d been able to coordinate our readings in this way.
This was especially exciting for me, as I see it as the closest poets can come to the jam sessions that musicians can have: the eye contact, the minute body language that communicates a shift in key, a new chord progression. I felt something like that with Anna at the library, and it was a new, challenging and rewarding energy from which to feed.
Presence / Energy
Listening to the same poet for 30 minutes, no matter how interesting, can be a little tiresome. Alternating poems gave the audience a chance to shift focus and be receptive to new energy. They didn’t have a chance to get bored to tears before the next one of us was up. And fortunately, Anna and I have very different energies: she tends toward a more serious, dramatic presence, while I am the one cracking corny jokes that only the true nerds in the audience respond to.
This is my new favorite way to read. Although I’d like an opportunity to plan a reading like this with Anna, I enjoyed the spontaneity, the shift in energy, and the challenge to stay focused and relevant. And I think the audience enjoyed how much we were enjoying it, too.
Rachel Bunting lives and writes in Southern New Jersey, between the Pine Barrens and the Delaware River. Her poems can be found in Muzzle Magazine, Weave Magazine, Boxcar Poetry Review, and forthcoming in PANK. She is currently at work on her first full-length collection of poems, tentatively titled A Door Opens at Night. Visit her website here.
Missed this anti-reading/pro-recitation post when it came out in April at the Contemporary Poetry Review:
…reading your verse has an impact in terms of the performance of your poems before a live audience, and that impact is negative. The poet reciting his verse can make use of the actor’s craft—not least of which are gesture and expressiveness—to perform the poem dramatically. By comparison, the poet reading his verse is a humble creature in front of an audience: eyes down on the page, body behind a lectern, mouth in front of a microphone. The poet-reader presents his audience with nothing in terms of his presence (or “visual impact”) but only as a disembodied voice to be heard—much like a school teacher’s lecture. Therein lies a fatal flaw: the audience has come, not to be taught, but entertained. This kind of “poetry reading” is thus an absurdity: the non-performance of verse by a poet in front of a live audience. The poet who can only read his work should, ipso facto, not be in front of an audience, ever.
This week, the folks at Commercial Poetry take up the refrain in this post.