Why Do We Have Readings? (A Polemic)

This is an intro I wrote for a panel discussion that I moderated last September: “Why Do We Have Poetry Readings?”, part of the daylong Series A Mini-Conference: Conversations about Poetry, held at the Hyde Park Art Center and curated by Bill Allegrezza.

I thought it might be of interest given Shya’s avant-garde post and ensuing conversation. My purpose behind the panel (which you can listen to here) was to bring together five series curators who are doing great work, so they could have more of a platform for their ideas. Because I think that a lot can be done to improve literary readings.

My five very gracious panel participants were:

Despite the focus here on poetry readings, the ideas can be applied to many different types of literary performances. I’ve also embedded some videos to add “Internet Value.”

AN OPENING STATEMENT

Poets have always performed their work aloud—one can argue that poetry was originally oral—but the oral poetry events that we host and attend today are for the most part recent creations.

Granted, they have their antecedents. The poetry readings of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries gave rise to clichés that remain resonant: poets are those thin, pale mustachioed folk (just men, I suppose) who wear berets and all black and tight striped shirts and who smoke Gauloises; zey snap zeir fingers when zey are pleased—or at least when it’s required that they appear pleased—before settling back into their drinking and smoking, very cool and nonchalant.

Still, times have changed. In the 1960s and early 1970s, academic poetry readings outgrew the cafés and the bars and the berets, becoming ubiquitous—and institutionalized—and therefore much more standardized—due to the proliferation of MFA programs. We all know the formula: there are two readers, one established, one up-and-coming, and the up-and-coming younger poet reads first, and each one introduces her or his work with anecdotes, and glosses, and maybe a poem by another well-known poet (everyone nods), proceeding then to read for about twenty minutes—and never longer (not if you want to be invited back!). Everyone suffers along and there’s sometimes a break, and any reading that lasts more than sixty minutes is a scandal and a failure. Afterward: drinks and discussion of anything other than poetry—this being the true purpose of the evening.

Elsewhere and somewhat more recently—although not as recently as many people think—the slam poetry scene came into being. It was created by Marc Smith at 8:17 P.M. on November 19, 1984, at the Get Me High Lounge (1758 N. Honore St.)—right here in Chicago! …as legend would have it.

And although Smith’s Monday Night Poetry Readings quickly stopped being readings and became slams, smuggling poetry out of the ivory tower and bringing it back into the bars, where it could belong once again to the people, slam poetry has evolved over the past twenty-nine years into its own kind of poetry institution. You know: the kind where the poetry always has to rhyme. And be funny. Or poignant. Or else no one will clap for you. And you can’t be on the National Team. Or HBO.

Meanwhile but largely unnoticed, performance poetry grew out of the conceptual art and performance art movements of the 1960s and 1970s, drawing on work by artists like Anne Waldman and John Cage…

…as well as earlier writers who emphasized the way their poetry sounded, such as Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting, and Charles Olson

…also inspirational (performance poetry enjoys having a lot of inspirations—and in name-dropping them) was the sound poetry made by the Dadaists…

…and the music-accompanied readings/happenings/parties that the Beats liked to throw.

Performance poetry’s practitioners—who prefer to be called “performers” rather than “poets”—use the Cut-Up Method and “playgiarism,” and include all of the props, costumes, and music forbidden by both academia and slams. And they’re free to be as confrontational and as strange and as boring as they like, because although they perform in art galleries and even out in the street itself (when the weather is nice), no one’s actually paying attention, and their work can’t be written down or published—only documented. And the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets (whom we all know are the true avant-gardists) don’t trust them, and they aren’t eligible for NEA grants.

But if they keep making their work, and they don’t sell out, they can eventually be heard on college radio very late at night, and perhaps also release a spoken word CD on Kill Rock Stars (although to keep it real, spoken word should be listened to only on cassette).

This panel’s title, therefore, is a priori problematic: the word “reading” cannot adequately encompass the wide range of oral poetry events that exist today—and I haven’t mentioned salons, or dub poetry, or hip-hop, or the new sound poetry, or neo-happenings, or poets who run Flarf texts through voice synthesis programs, or talking e-cards. One might regard this lack of a single term as sign of current poetry’s fine health—and it is, in a way, although it is simultaneously an indicator of how divided today’s poetry world is. In my experience, the unique factions often resemble armed camps, self-patrolling and cleansing themselves of all outside influences. Scenes routinely define themselves not as something (other than “good”), but as being not what other scenes are. Those academic poets write for the page only, and read their own works poorly; their readings are dull. Slam was the death of poetry, or at least its commercialization (same difference), or a game, or a sport—certainly not something to ever be taken seriously; it’s just entertainment. Performance poets are weirdos, antisocial art school types who get off on making their audiences uncomfortable (if any), by insisting on wearing funny outfits and on screaming, or by wearing just their underwear and a scowl, and by being so goddamn somber while spouting their absurdist manifestos. (And by taking absolutely forever to do all of this.)

Well, that’s what they say. And in these ways, by such means, each scene can believe itself to comprise the entirety of the known poetry universe—or at least the part that matters.

What unites all living poets, regardless of their backgrounds and goals and aesthetic preferences, is how difficult it is to make poetry in the year 2009. Poets of all strides have been beset by numerous challenges over the past forty-odd years: declining readerships and the loss of support from large commercial publishing houses are just two of the more significant ones. At the same time, however, other cultural developments, such as the popularization of the Internet and the lowering cost of air travel, have assisted the proliferation of all kinds of readings and slams and performance events and conferences and series—especially as poets have (necessarily) adopted a more “do it yourself” kind of attitude.

In the face of all of these differences and changes and challenges, many questions can be asked: Why do we have “readings” or “oral poetry events” (of any kind)? Do they really play vital roles in their respective communities? Why don’t they get along at all? Will academics ever stop reading in their poetry voices? Has slam sold out (yet again)? Will anyone ever pay attention to the poor starving performance poet-artists?

Personally, I think that oral poetry events—regardless of name and type—when they are at their best—can:

  • reveal new aspects of poetry;
  • provide different perspectives for experiencing poetry;
  • bring exposure to lesser-known/unknown poets;
  • promote work (academically, popularly, artistically, and commercially);
  • satisfy professional obligations (especially in academia but elsewhere, too);
  • be self-critical (rewriting poetry’s histories and traditions);
  • provide social functions;
  • build communities;
  • be beautiful in and of themselves; and
  • be fun for all involved! (Maybe.)

However, poetry events—and the people who run them—can also fail at achieving these aims. They can become insular, cliquish, tedious, unadventurous, masturbatory, and obligatory. (And obligatory masturbation is little fun.) They can serve as means of exclusion: narrow gateways guarding codified rituals that make miniature poetry scenes increasingly restricted and restrictive, ever more isolated from both the public and other similarly shrinking scenes.

This panel, then, is an attempt to confront these differences. Its members are all curators and participants in poetry series ranging from academic to slams to performance. My hope is that their discussion will explode misconceptions and stereotypes, find common ground, and point out the avenues that poets have yet to explore.

Postscript

I’ll let Robert Ashley have the final word:

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6 thoughts on “Why Do We Have Readings? (A Polemic)

  1. I saw Kevin Sampsell and Justin Taylor read this past week (not poetry, but still) and during the Q&A one of the questions I asked them was “Are book tours and readings at all useful for selling books?” They both said no, but that they’re a lot of fun. Which I think is a good enough reason.

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