Friday, October 29, 2010

What do Writers Want? A Poet-centric Reading of Readings

[Kootenay School of Writing, Vancouver]

A lot of ink has been spilled about poetry readings as an institution: what does a poet's voice tell us about the work, the poet? How do communities coalesce around reading series? What are their histories? What is the relationship between the page and the poet's performance? How does the audience factor into a poet's work, and how is that displayed at the reading? What is the sense of sound? How do oral poetries differ from those whose origins are the page or the screen? What is the pedagogical significance of sites like PennSound and UbuWeb? Without doing my due diligence as a scholar here, I allude to Peter Middleton and other writers in Charles Bernstein's edited collection, Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, as well as the essays in Sound States, edited by Adelaide Morris. And then there are the PoemTalks at UPenn, which use recordings by poets as entry points for discussions of their work. Those recordings and more can be accessed from PennSound.

But, having just returned from doing readings in Vancouver and Boise, my question to myself is: what does the writer want from his or her audience? Is there a poetics of audience? How could such a poetics bring the poet and her audience closer? How can we measure such intangibles as engagement, as warmth (or coolth), as exchange? What does the poet stand to gain from giving readings, aside from a modest honorarium and a cv reference? Why go out there and read? And to whom? What purposes are served beyond poetry itself?

There's a lot of silence around readings. It's hardly the same thing as the silence around traumatic events (death, miscarriage), but I'm reminded of those silences in our inarticulate efforts to respond to the words of others. It's as if we fear saying too much, being intrusive, and so we don't say.

But when a middle-aged man in a bright orange Boise State shirt approached me the other night (you can see him sitting next to the aisle in this photograph, halfway back), having said during the Q&A of my reading that I should "start praying" for the University of Hawai`i football team, which is playing in Boise on November 6, I learned what it is that I want from a reading. He said that he is going through the third case of dementia in his family. He wondered what one does the third time around. But then he engaged his questions with the content of my reading. I will not soon forget these questions:

--You write about the degeneration of your mother's mental state; have you ever written about your own?

--When I said that I try to keep myself out of the story, thinking that the subject is my mother and not myself, he responded, slyly, "oh, you're in there!" (Smart man, Janet Holmes said later.)

--Do you ever write for therapeutic purposes? (When I deflected away from poetry as therapy, he referred to a memory card I'd read about an Iraq vet who was calling in airstrikes to Afghanistan on Waikiki beach.) That was a therapeutic moment, no?

--Have you ever tried to write as your mother?

His questions were clearly self-interested in the best sense; he wanted to know how to deal with his feelings about dementia. But they were more than that. They were craft questions that also engaged issues of content. They were questions that created a momentary community between him and me. He was followed by Ruth Salter, a teacher of creative writing who said she also writes in response to Wallace Stevens (I had organized my reading around poems that engage his work). That was another moment of connection. In Vancouver, two graduate students had approached me about their own work; one is working on David Chariandy's work of memoir/fiction, Soucouyant, the way he writes about children trying to preserve their parents' culture (true for any child of Alzheimer's, I suspect), and another on a Canadian novelist who writes about Alzheimer's. These questions point to the usefulness of the visiting writer; she is a resource, a traveler who comes through with information, as well as her peddled wares.

But back to those silences. Often they are benign; what to say is often difficult matter. Questions also require muses. They have often left the room already, like someone running off to answer a cell phone. Sometimes silences are a mark of disinterest that also indicates self-interest. If the reader does not show a way to write your own work, they are less useful to you. Another way to say this is that sometimes the freshest questions come from those audience members with the least invested in the poetry world, if not in poetry itself. Those inevitable questions of territory, of form, of how you write and about what, and the ways in which we poets juggle to place ourselves in relation to others can be important, yes. But they can also get in the way of attention, of those "ordinary affects" that my semester seems otherwise concerned with. They are acts of judgment, ultimately, acts that we need in order to find our way (acts I have performed in my own mind against other poets). But these acts also interfere with our absorption of what is there as possibility, or simple expression. Far be it from me to advocate pure absorption; I'm enough a fan of Charles Bernstein's "Artifice of Absorption" to know that absorption per se does not challenge us. One of Janet Holmes's MFA students asked about Bernstein, in response to my assertion that Tinfish tries to join together Language writing with what I have found in the Pacific during my years here. I commented on the ways in which even avant-garde poets often come to rely on personal content as they get older. Content is content (if not a site of contentment.) And content exists outside poetry, as well as within it. It's toward that site that I want most these days to reach. More on that soon.

[Boise State audience, Janet Holmes & Alvin Greenberg at bottom right, with her MFA students in the first three rows.]


Carla Shafer said...

Hi Susan, I flew to Boise Wednesday afternoon on the day before a 9-5 meeting with the Dept. of Education. I wanted a poetry reading, found the Boise events newspaper and lucky day, a reading by you. (Having never heard of you, I saw this event was part of a series, first for the year probably and I guessed there would be many (or a few) earnest student-writers). Turns out, a room full of student-writers. I think it matters that they are new to each other. I think that your arrival with the first layer of snow on the surrounding mountains affected the reading. The air was brisk and cool for the first time. Being in Boise was getting serious. Fall would lead to winter, lead to grades. Your reading was great because you kind of lurch yourself present at the podium, the photo was funny-- but like Sherman Alexie calling his mom on his cell phone during a reading-- it reminded us of the distance between being present as self or being present as the action or as someone's object/view. I had a question, but I couldn't figure out how to ask it without it being about me, or without somehow sounding unappreciative of you. Later, I walked from the reading to the street with S. who is working on a novel. She seemed to say that poetry seems formless in a way that allows it to be anything to anyone. I am doubtful that the delvings on your mother's dementia that rotated from viewer to viewed could be anything to anyone. That large dismissive overview hardly leaves room to generate a question. Appreciating the head nodder was a stroke of genius on your part and could have softened the climate perhaps. Walking back to my hotel I thought of what you wrote, how you read and how incredibly lucky I was to have such a fine reader show up it town on the one night I could be there. After that lamb and veggies and wine at Guernica cafe. Wish you had been there, we could have celebrated your amazing writing and the feelings of triumph poems bring, even to pain.
Carla (Bellingham, WA)

susan said...

Thanks for writing, Carla of Bellingham, and wish we'd met outside these little boxes. I wonder what "anything to anyone" actually means in such a situation. Form-lessness in some of the work is intended to evoke the lessness of Alzheimer's--other of the pieces were not formless. But I thought that audience quite warm, and not simply the head nodders. Conversations in large groups are difficult in such circumstances; perhaps part of my problem with readings is the old-fashioned way in which the reader becomes a lecturer, and the audience the lectured upon, or to. As for the photograph, I hadn't thought of the way it argues that audience is also a performance; thanks for that! And again, wish we'd spoken in the Basque bar or somewhere else. Maybe another time.

aloha, Susan

Splabman said...

What an intelligent post, as usual. Wish you would have stopped in Seattle and visited our new SPLAB.

Yes, the performance of the poem is a whole separate art. It has its own requirements and the wise poet structures the reading in a certain way, takes clues from her audience and finds ways in which to draw them in. Humor helps. Brenda Hillman did a wonderful power point presentation during her Open Books appearance.

(See the review here:

Mic technique is critical. Using a dynamic range helps, but most of all, being present, open and human are the salient qualities and, Susan, I am sure these are qualities you bring to any reading.

susan said...

Paul--thanks for the comment. I'll be back and hope to read at Open Books again in the near future! aloha, sms