Live, Poetry, Live

Posted on October 2, 2011

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As a twenty nine year old writer who is interested in participating in the world, the cultures about which I care, I have re-engaged with some old habits and am seeking out new ones.

For example, I found a pick up soccer league, which is an old habit.  I recently committed to trying vegetarianism because I believe it is better for my body and the planet, this is a new habit (though I already talked to a farmer about getting a couple “happy” turkeys for Thanksgiving). I run and bike a few times a week in preparation for a duathlon next month, this is a combination of the old and the new.

I go to the amazing Brooklyn Public Library each week and check out armloads of books (rekindling a long gone habit), which is exactly what I did as a young boy up until middle school. I think I had forgotten this fact about myself, that I would literally read four books a week, and then joyously place them in the drop box on my way back to the adult stacks as a little measly fifth grader. I remember reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court  by Mark Twain, just because I was 12 and it was huge and unknown.

And yesterday, I went to a poetry reading, which is something I used to do quite a bit, especially at Kenyon College, because we would get a great circuit of poets who floated through the hallowed halls. I attended a few in California, especially when it involved hearing my classmates or teachers read their work, and saw some of my all time favorites like Ferlinghetti, pack large halls. I was much more active in Oregon, as a frequent attendee of the Second Sunday Readings, and the local Community College Writer’s Cafe. There, I was a young 22 year old, eager with my clunky words and jazz be bop innovation, reading like I wanted to be in a poetry slam, but always feeling too unhip to ever get up in front of my same aged peers and try to find my voice, so I would do it in front of the gray hairs. They loved me for my enthusiasm and passion for the word, and all the while, from Kenyon to now, I have almost always struggled to stay awake during a poetry reading.

Yesterday, at a reading for the Poetry Society of America, the reading was about Autumn. Luckily, it was held outside in the New York Botanical Gardens, the air was charged and ready to rain electric, the wind nipped, and the leaves provided the perfect finger snapping setting for a poetry reading. I positioned myself in a place where I could write and take notes, attend to the reader, and stare at the clouds rolling off the tree tops. I was awake and engaged just watching the droves of people who were walking by to check out the “Fall Flowers of Japan” exhibit, definitely not the POETRY READING.

The readers read a combination of their own work and other great writings about Fall. James Wright…”all the proud fathers are ashamed to go home”, Virgil, unknown Japanese translations, Horace Mann, Keats, and three wildly different readers.

I enjoyed hearing some of the old poetry; there is a reason their words have survived the centur/ies and still ring.  However, I was startled at the lack of wonder in the poets reading their own work. First, there was piss poor voice control and presence by the readers. They had a crowd of maybe twenty in a small outdoor space, and yet, they could barely be heard. Once they leaned awkwardly over into the mic and read, they were like little mice peeking out from under a floorboard. Scared poets. Then, their words, and I guess I began to tune out after the first couple poems, were wandering. They did not touch on autumn, or the importance of the season, or our relationship to it, or have anything that would stand up in a strong wind. They themselves were being pushed over by the weak wind, their words drifting off into the herb garden and perennials before they could touch my heart. Specifically, it was the poems about memory and sexuality that seem to affect me in the least. Perhaps this is because (gasp) I had a happy childhood (something Vonnegut said a writer should never admit). But I cannot seem to find the transcendence in hearing a man read about reinterpreting memory from a potentially traumatic past. Please do not think that I have no sensitivity to this story, it is just the reading was about autumn (or so I thought), and the man was talking about first feeling a tongue in his mouth in fifth grade, about comparing himself to the extinct buffalo or the enslaved black man- and quite frankly, I felt rather perturbed by his associations. If I want to hear such loosely felt and underdeveloped ideas, I will go to my neighborhood bar for the open mic or poetry slam, where people dribble personal stories in long strips of saliva for hours.

The poetry was dead to me in a way that I have never acknowledged aloud, but have felt. It is the reason why I have fallen asleep in so many damn readings- why the man sitting in front of me, even in the howling frigid wind, still managed to nod off within five minutes, and wrestled with his own attention for over an hour, lurching and spasming to try to appear interested. It gave me cause to worry; because these are poets who have received honors from top organizations, have published multiple books, were invited by the oldest poetry society in America to read, presumably because they best represent what the field has to offer.

It is something that I think about in my own writing. Not when I am writing of course, but when I go back to it. Should it be less abstract? Should it be accessible (see Billy Collins)? Should my writing step off the path of academia and step into the world? I believe yes, and I believe that if not, then there will be a handful of poets walking around the Americas massaging each others gray hair until their bones become brittle and their hands arthritic.

I realize it is easy to be a critic from the sidelines without ever having really stepped into the battle. But that is another new habit, one I am developing as we speak, about putting the work out there. As I do so, I will keep in mind the hundreds of dead poetry readings I have attended, and keep in mind that when I read my work, or when a reader picks up a word of mine, I want them to feel fully alive.

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