Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

From bookstore to telephone: the incredible shrinking poetry reading


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.

Author: Dave Bonta

I'm the author of several small, odd books, including Breakdown: Banjo Poems, Words on the Street: An Inaction Comic, and Odes to Tools, but my real work is at my literary blog Via Negativa. I'm the editor and publisher of Moving Poems, a webzine showcasing videopoetry and poetry film. And I've been a dedicated if somewhat unorthodox homebrewer for more than 20 years.

13 thoughts on “From bookstore to telephone: the incredible shrinking poetry reading

  1. I should add that I’ve frequently had occasion to call up poets I don’t know very well and ask them to read poems over the phone. I have to do it whenever someone we’re publishing in qarrtsiluni doesn’t have the wherewithal to record herself. Though I wrestle with phone-fear in my regular life, oddly I’ve never felt any reluctance about calling up poets, and it’s nearly always a lovely experience. Often we’ll end up chatting for the better part of an hour. Even the couple quite famous poets I’ve gotten telephone readings from have been generous with their time and their opinions about the world. In fact, I’d have to say it’s one of the greatest perks of being an online literary magazine editor.

  2. Great post, love the telephone idea. Chicago used to have a “Dial-a-Poem, Chicago!” program. Poets would come down and tape their work, and then the poems would be available on a schedule to call up for free. I love her live, real phone idea.

    Glad the consensus continues to be, “Read well, if you are going to read at all.” And/or, “Do fun stuff.” Sad that nobody wants to buy/read the books. Sigh…

    • Not quite nobody! But yeah, it’s sad. When even fiction has a hard time getting read, you know our civilization is in a death-spiral.

  3. Pingback: Audio poetry contributions of the day

  4. I’ve never been comfortable with the notion of taking people by surprise and reading a poem at them. But I like the telephone idea. I also like the idea of finding other small groups — book clubs, etc. “Micro readings” is what most poetry readings are anyway. Who expects crowds at a bookstore for poetry?

    That said, I would hate to think that traditional poetry readings really are on the way out, as you speculate above. There is something so important about gathering together, in the same room, now and again, to respect words. As much as I enjoy the online community, it is not a replacement for the other.

    • Oh, I agree! I think the bookstore reading, focused on trying to get people to buy a single-author book, is or ought to be on the way out. I prefer readings where people share not only poems they’ve written themselves, but poems they like by others, too. I also think outdoor readings in public spaces are great. And how about putting some poem-appreciators behind the mike who are not necessarily writers? I’ve always thought readings should be about the poetry rather than the poet, and with the few I’ve organized myself, that’s been the focus.

  5. Great post! It’s inspired me to think more about compression. Instead of big poetry events (the single author reading), how can we insert poetry into daily nooks and crannies (phone calls)?

    • Maybe we should try and compile a list of ideas and suggestions…

    • How do we make space for poetry in those daily nooks and crannies? I believe poems require space — on the page, or in the air, or in the life. So I’m all for finding ways to help poems cross people’s paths, but with the poem we need the space…

      • So you don’t like, for example, poems on buses and subways crammed in among the ads? Because a lot of people do seem to appreciate getting poetry that way (though I find it a little bizarre). I realize that’s a very literal example of cramped space.

  6. Actually, I think b/c people have the space of the commute, that format works pretty well. It doesn’t have to be physical space, I am also thinking temporal. For instance, the difference between someone calling to hear a poem (where they have the intention and have made the time), which is a lovely idea, and a robocall poem, interrupting their life at random.

  7. This is an interesting conversation. I love the idea of the phone calls – I, like Dave, am not the most comfortable on the phone, but the concept is unique. I have had my students have a poetry booth at some public events where people can pull words/phrases from a hat or give their own suggestions and receive a short poem in return. And I love what Dave is doing with videopoems – we all need to help promote any new ways to share poems!

  8. I’ll put in a small plug here for the poetry vending machine we’ve created in Wisconsin. It’s making it’s way around the state, showing up at various stores and arts venues for a month or two at a time. It’s a huge hit. You can see a picture and find out more at http://www.poetryjumpsofftheshelf.com (PJOS is a program run by a Madison woman who specializes in putting poetry in surprising places.)

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