Given our current attention economy, a poetry reading can seem a peculiarly decadent affair. Among other events and activities offering cultural capital (i.e. operas, plays, art openings) it seems the least obligated to enrich or entertain. Barring bestseller and celebrity exceptions, those in attendance at readings are often friends of writers, or writers themselves, and it’s rare for anyone who’s neither to choose a poetry event over, well, anything else happening that evening. And yet, poetry events and reading series proliferate and thrive.
The last two I attended were the 2014 Women of the World Poetry Slam Finals, and an installment of the Fun Party Reading Series featuring Sommer Browning and Deborah Poe. The Women of the World Poetry Slam takes place over several days and this year Austin was the host city. The finals took place at the Paramount Theatre, a beautifully restored baroque-style 90 year old venue, whose acoustics thrummed with the crowd’s bright excitement just before the show. Fun Party is a reading series hosted by poet Cindy St. John, and poet-publisher Dan Boehl, and takes place at Tiny Park Gallery. Tiny Park showcases exceptional art, and it’s no small pleasure to experience poetry in that intimate space, surrounded by sculptures and paintings. While presenting any two items for discussion engenders comparison, I don’t intend to pit one against the other, or to worry the differences. I recognize ‘slam’ is a distinct genre, but I’m sensitive to its use as a qualifier. Legitimacy arguments in the arts have always been an exclusionary endeavour, and so I opt out. We’ll proceed, taking for granted that poetry is poetry is poetry.
A poem spoken before an audience is a public and amorphous act, and unlike a monologue for the stage, few expectations are made explicit. There is only the convention, at readings, of an audience’s silence, attention, and assent. At times this can seem a minor tyranny, and still at others one may feel grateful to be thralled—absorbed, a willing subject. Because a poem is oftentimes the language made strange, the act of listening and perceiving—as calibrated by a poet’s physical presence, their pitch, inflections and intonations—is a physical, intellectual, and creative effort. One’s completed enjoyment is not consumption, it is labour. Contrasted with a theatrical performance, the contemporary poetry reading or poetry slam event plays out a subtler power dynamic. The primary connection is between a poet and an individual listener, but the spoken poem will always be a communal experience first, and one engages others present within that space, not so much as an audience but as collaborators and witnesses. Together, we are not there to consume, but to be actively present, and to connect with the poem as it is happening.
Although not as brutal and naked as stand-up comedy, poetry readings share a similar quality of vulnerability, as experienced by the author, and as witnessed and sympathetically experienced by the audience. Aesthetic distances and several layers of artifice collapse—over banter, within the substance of the poem itself, or just by physical proximity. Like any intimate human interaction, the spoken poem becomes a concentration of tension, even as it remains emotionally diffuse.
I’ve chatted with several folks who say that they’ve attended readings in which they drift in and out, as though the performance offered a kind of portal into reverie. Another common response has been the feeling that after a ‘good’ poetry reading, one felt like going home to write. I count myself lucky enough to have felt this, too, and it made me wonder what combination of our senses are being activated in the process.
Regarding inspiration (and to oversimplify, for a moment): I feel sad, and so am moved to write of how and why I feel sad, but, if I enjoyed listening to poems being read, it doesn’t necessarily follow that I’m moved to write about how and why I enjoyed that reading. The urge to make is a kind of sensory alignment, and I believe the listening that takes place at a poetry reading, by isolating the exchange of attentions (of the poem itself, its craft and mechanics, and of the listener, their apprehension and empathy) can achieve this. All those senses we use to parse, emote, and communicate are tuned in the space of listening, carving out a quiet place in our consciousness.
A poem will always privilege one set of attentions or priorities over another, and there’s no question as to the difference between what’s written with a physical audience in mind as opposed to an abstract reader. Still, (tentatively) excluding visual and conceptual poetry, any line put down is a line first heard. Whether in the first flush of a draft or through the cold rigour of revision, regardless one’s personal style or aesthetic—sound reigns verse.
How I heard about WOWPS was on Ladies Night at Neo Soul Lounge, a weekly open-mic and slam event that I’d been missing out on for too many years. It turned out to be one of those nights where being present and listening proved as rejuvenating and invigorating as any intense workout. Endorphins happened, I’m certain. To those who’ve yet to attend a slam event, being a member of the audience is a richly democratic, socially vibrant, and often cathartic experience. At the Paramount theatre where I witnessed twelve poets take to the mic, I was moved many times over to holler, stomp, and clap until my palms stung. At one point, in the third and final round, Dominique Christina (who’d be the competition’s winner) read a poem about menstruation that moved me to leap to my feet in applause, a fervour having taken over my limbs.
Even though slam poetry has enumerated rules and conventions, there is still a high level of pleasurable uncertainty, the tension between listener and poet torqued by what nerves and skill a successful performance requires. I’ve noticed that many poets at a slam event, before approaching the mic, take a moment to collect themselves, and each iteration of this gesture moved me. It is a private act, meant to calm nerves and direct focus, and yet when witnessed, becomes a facet of the performance. I truly love that moment; each deepening breath before a word is uttered, like the first stroke marking a poet’s personal time signature.
Much of what I’ve attempted here was inspired and helped along by the thoughts and ideas found in Sound Literary Magazine, a journal which investigates and explores issues of “musico-poetics”. I encourage all of you who are interested in the interplay between music, sound, and the written word, to check it out. Read, linger, and participate. I credit their introductory prompt for the following list with which I conclude this post.
A few reasons why I go to poetry readings:
– Because I believe a community sustains the practice of art, and participation sustains a community.
– Because I crave new contexts: to know and love a poet’s work is to desire what other experiences that work can be shaped to.
– Because, although I am a solitary person by nature, being among other humans of my ilk is good for my mental health.
– Because I have a body, and a poetry reading makes excellent use of it.