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Saturday, June 30, 2012

How to Attend a Poetry Reading

It goes without saying the discussion as to the "usefulness" of poetry has been going on for some time now. I might venture to say we could look all the way back to the Greeks and find the kind of criticism of the entire discipline that, in a nutshell, goes something like this: Poetry is useless.

But if you really believe that you wouldn't be reading this. And if it were really true--that poetry is, indeed, useless and therefore pointless-- how is it that poetry has been around all these thousands of years?

The corollary to the "useless-pointless" discussion is the  ideas that poetry and poetry readings are "boring."

I could say here how I have given reading all over the United States--and  have attended readings given  all over the country--and I always look into the faces of the audience. I do not see bored, restless people who  choose to spend their time in useless and pointless endeavors because of some deep seated need to waste a Friday night or Saturday afternoon--or what have you...

no, I see people who look like they need something that only the poetic experience can give them.

I will, admit, however, that I often see confused people. Those who have not been taught how to attend a poetry reading. Those who don't know what to expect or how to act. Those who may have been embarrassed or shamed by some ill educated junior high school teacher who --as Billy Collins has so famously written--insisted the class "torture a meaning" out of of a poem. Or worse--this mythological teacher we have all encountered at some point in our lives--the one we had to learn how to  survive with all the courage of one of Victor Hugo's character's in Les Miserables--forced us to scan a poem but never taught us how find joy in the reading and hearing of a poem.

But I digress. As usual.

Here's how to attend a poetry reading in order to enjoy it.

1) Forget what people tell you about poetry. It is the first and most profound of the "People's Art." Therefore you have a right to be there. So relax and let the poetry wash over you.

2) Poetry readings are not created equal. Like all public performances--are sometimes great experiences, sometimes not so much. Understand that. After a while and with some experience, you will know if a poet is giving a reading that is phoned in or if the poet is simply not a gifted reader. Or if the poet reads so theatrically that the reading obscured obvious flaws in the writing. Or if the poet transports you--and the entire audience--to another dimension. Then you will know the word "good" will never, ever be enough to describe an experience like that.

3) Come prepared. When you are familiar with a poem or a poet, the experience of a reading becomes  so much deeper. Try to read a few poems before you attend. Don't worry if you "get" the poems. Just read one or two and then see what happens inside you when you hear the poet read the same poems.

4) There is an etiquette to follow at poetry readings--just like at football games, pool halls, the symphony and public debates; there is an "understanding" on how to behave. Typically, audience members do not applaud after each poem is read. It is traditional to only applaud at the end of the reading. Think of this as listening to the symphony--the whole is greater than its parts. I have, however,  seen a few poets who do not want this kind of response to their work. They like it when the audience seems to not be able to contain themselves. Okay, then, Go with it. However,  I just have to say, I don't like this practice as it is encouraged by such poets as I think it diminishes the performance. I find it distracting, unnecessary and a bit too much.

5) Which brings me to the next point--a good poetry reading is a performance. No eating while the poet is reading. No texting. No passing notes.  Behave yourself. The poems speak to one another and you need to be quiet, sit still and hear the "conversation." Really, be polite. Or don't come at all.

6) Poetry readings get better the more you attend and your understanding of the art form grows. This will happen.

7) After a reading, buy a book. Or buy a book beforehand. Support the poetry. Support the art form. Most poets do not make any money from their books. In fact, it often costs the poet money to promote his or her books. So, if you think poetry is an important part of the human experience, try and buy a book if at all possible.

8) After the reading, the poet will be in a kind of post-reading fog. So when you  get your book signed by the poet, remember to be kind....write your name on a piece of paper so the poet doesn't have to think about how to spell it.

9) After-the reading, do not shove your own poetry into the hands of the poet who has just given his or her all to the crowd. This is not about you or your work. If you have only come to the poet's reading because there is an open mic reading, that is fine. But think about how this poet might teach you something about poetry. Really, you should consider this a free lesson in how to write poetry. (or, in some cases, how not to write poetry). Be respectful. Be open. If you like the poet's work, consider writing a brief review on Amazon.

10) There is simply nothing like participating in a great poetry reading. Nothing.  Next time you go, bring some friends.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What To Do When You're Not Writing Poetry

Poets are not patient people.

Or so it seems to me. 

While writing--and especially while writing well-- poets tend to believe time can rearrange itself, that the earth is spinning on its axis with a happy hum, that the news of the day will wait like a patient puppy at the front door and that, in general, existence, itself, is distilled down to a concentrated form which is found, only,  inside verbs, nouns, comma, periods, line breaks and white space.

What poets do not seem to possess is a patient understanding of themselves in the world of the pre or post writing experience.

There has been much written about how to overcome writer's block. Etc. Etc. Etc. Yet I can't recall much discussion regarding that twilight state which lies somewhere between "I need to write; I am writing" and "I can't get a single word on the page."

Poets should look to the fiction writers for some instruction on what to do when not writing. Fiction writers tend to see the world as one gigantic imagination lab.

During the period between just-have-written and soon-to-be-writing--a state which is defined not by being blocked but rather one of collecting and recollecting images, words, thoughts--the etcetera of writing experience--the poets are staring at their shoes, feeling abandoned by their most profound impulse to write. But, given this same state -the fiction writers are observing--sometimes passively, objectively, sometimes interactively--the world as it approaches them.

Poets can learn from this state of imaginative collection of images, ideas, thoughts and emotions.

What did you see today that you have never seen before?

Was it that building that "magically" appeared on the corner near your house? Was it the square bit of glitter stuck to the side of your shirt? Was it the sad looking stranger in the supermarket? The knock on your front door?

Look outward. Make a list--without emotion and without judgement--of the small images, the small moments of your day.

Go ahead. Try it. See what happens.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Poetry, Place and History

Poetry lives in the air. Of that I am convinced. Perhaps, as poets, what we do is to split time in two and step into that place where poetry is being born. Call it  a place of"seed time" or galactic dust--whatever--just know that it exists.
 Recently, I traveled to Europe, spending time in London and Paris. I couldn't help but feel--in the ancient rocks and on the cold winds of Stonehenge-- that  some kind of poetry is being born.

The feeling was visceral. As though the poem of place and history will not be denied--the thoughts and emotions rooted in those who lived so long ago--was taking shape in its own longing. And that longing has a shape and weight and clarity.

And it was waiting--it waits--for us to call it forth.