The Poetry Reading in Real Life

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Since I’ve been doing a lot of readings lately, I’ve been thinking about the Poetry Reading as an antidote to the Internet.  I’ve always felt ambivalent about the way that social networking sites and the Internet are used to publicize the private and to promote the self.  I realize I’m in a tight spot here, as this blog entry itself is on the Internet, and may be seen by some as a means of self-promotion.  I’d like to think of it, however, as an excuse to look critically at how we conduct ourselves in the world as writers and as human beings, and what role the Poetry Reading plays in all of this messiness about the public and the private.

While I am guilty of using Facebook for self-promotion, I am loath to put really private information on there.  If anything, I use Facebook solely for self-promotion (OK, and for looking at and commenting on photos of my friends’ cute children and pets).  I don’t know any better way than Facebook of telling people about an upcoming reading or publication.  In many ways, Facebook has made me a lazy emailer—almost everyone I would email about a reading is on Facebook, so why not post about it there?  I am also guilty of promoting my dog on Facebook.  In fact, I’ll promote her here, too.  Here’s Ruby, in all of her squinty-eyed, 13-pound glory:

Perhaps the difference I’m getting at is that while I’m comfortable presenting aspects of a “public” persona on Facebook and on the Internet in general, anything beyond that—anything that fits my own definition of “private”—makes me uncomfortable.  I like Facebook for its convenience, and for the connection it gives me to my friends.  I like to see the funny videos my friends post, to read about the incredible verbalizations of my friends’ small children, or to look at photos of my friends’ pets (I’m a sucker for a certain one-fanged kitty who shall remain nameless, but he knows who he is).  I also like to see what people are publishing online.

As I’ve been doing these readings, though, what I’ve realized about the Poetry Reading is that there’s no substitute for being with flesh and blood people at a poetry event, and for the conversations one may have there.  I like to look a new acquaintance in the eye, and though I’ve met many people through Facebook and online correspondence, I regret the fact that I can’t meet those people personally.  I can thumbs-up my friends’ poems and comments all day long, but experiencing the oral tradition (and a real person!) first-hand is a privilege that, to me at least, is impossible to replicate online.  My friend Dan Rosenberg tells me there’s an acronym that relates to this discussion.  “IRL,” apparently, is used to differentiate between things that happen “In Real Life,” and those that happen on the Internet.  So what happens when we start to mix the two?

A couple of weeks ago, I read with Julia Cohen and Nicole Steinberg at Emory University’s beautiful new bookstore in Atlanta.  I loved hearing Julia’s and Nicole’s poems read aloud, and I particularly enjoyed seeing how the audience engaged with their work.  Julia read a series of poems, each one called “Everyone I Knew in High School is Dead.”  I think it was particularly rewarding to hear these poems in an audience made up primarily of undergraduates, as these students were closer to their high school years than any of the readers were.  Every time Julia repeated the same title but began a new poem, the audience members would laugh a bit more, surprised and pleased by the repetition.

It seemed that the verbal repetition of the same title made people (including me) consider it in different ways each time it was repeated.  Hearing the titles of the poems aloud gave me an understanding of the poems that I know I would have missed had I read them in a book, in which case I’m sure I would have started to visually skip over the titles.  Since “Everyone I Knew in High School” is presumably not literally dead, the audience had the opportunity to think multiple times about what kind of metaphoric death the speaker of the poems is experiencing or describing.  What would it or could it mean for everyone from high school to be dead?  My favorite poem from this series starts like this:

Ski accidents are for the rich and lonely

Store your world inside our

fogged binoculars

I heat to swell

I slope down because no one

can intrude when my hands, flat like ice,

melt to welcome.

In this excerpt, I see issues of interior and exterior, the self and the multitude, privacy (yes!) and, 
related to it, intersections between an exterior, multitudinous “you” and an interior, private “our” with “our fogged binoculars.”  A pair of binoculars, a small apparatus used to magnify, stores the seemingly large, exterior “your world.”  And then there’s the “I,” the singular person who must undergo transformation of the hands, which must “melt” in order to “welcome.”  The speaker states that she must “slope down because no one / can intrude when my hands, flat like ice / melt to welcome.”  Here, the “I” can welcome “no one” (the potential intruders) when her hands “melt.”  The hands seem to act as synecdochal representations of the body, as well as metaphorically representing the emotional warming one must undergo to feel welcoming, as opposed to threatened.  In any case, perhaps I chose this poem to look at because it relates to some of my feelings about how the Poetry Reading is an opportunity to “melt to welcome.”

Why do I think the Poetry Reading is an antidote to the Internet?  After all, when one gets up in front of a group of people to read poems aloud, one surely is engaging in a kind of self-exposure that the Internet also encourages?  I do feel exposed at poetry readings, but I think it’s a different kind of exposure, one that is bounded, contained.  Because of my particular brand of self-consciousness, this experience feels more controlled and intimate than Internet exposure.  I’ve always thought of the semester-long poetry workshop as a kind of temporary community where people should feel safe, and I see the Poetry Reading in the same way.  For me, the social conditions of the Poetry Reading make for a safe temporary community, as opposed to the amorphous fog that I imagine the Internet community to be.  Perhaps it’s the commitment a person makes to the physical and social environment of a reading that changes the sense of community.  When we read poems at home, we could be doing seventeen other things at the same time.  Usually I have no fewer than ten browser windows open at a time, after all.

This isn’t to say that every poetry reading (or all Internet usage!) is the same—certainly, a poetry reading doesn’t always feel like a safe space, but the potential of the reading environment for me is that it’s a safe space.  There’s no Internet substitute for the IRL experiences of making eye contact with an audience member, or even for listening to the keys of a cell phone click as a student texts during your reading.  All of this is part of what is means to be physically close to a few dozen human beings, and I wouldn’t trade that sonic, visual, olfactory experience, no matter how many hours I spend procrastinating on Facebook when I should be writing a paper about Emily Dickinson.

Then again, once, at a reading at Pegasus Books in Berkeley, a really smelly guy sat down next to me at the last minute, right before the reading started.  I spent the whole reading trying not to breathe.  You can’t smell people on the Internet.

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