Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Normal Reading

It was actually an awesome reading. After a windy drive downstate (as a Northeasterner, it takes some getting used to talking about "downstate Illinois" with exactly the same inflection and implications with which one speaks of "upstate New York"), I arrived in Bloomington-Normal and was met by sweet and menschy Gabe Gudding. We then met Gabe's collaborator Kristin Dykstra, fellow reader Juan Manuel Sánchez, Illinois Wesleyan's Michael Theune, and a small gaggle of grad students for pretty-good pizza at Lucca, which is apparently the tiny headquarters of the long-beleagured Bloomington Democrats (the building where the GOP was founded is just a couple of blocks away). The reading itself took place in an art gallery deep in one of the most cavernous buildings of one of the most cavernous campuses I've ever visited, and was startlingly well-attended for a chilly Friday evening--sixty people or more, most gratifying.

Juan read first: his poems are influenced in arguably equal measure by Mexican/Chicano folklore and by Wallace Stevens, a potent combination. Some of the poems were presented in Spanish, then in what are apparently very loose "translations" into English; at least once he reversed the order, which is an interesting move, putting into question which poem/language is the (ab)original. I can't find any links to his work on the web, but he's got work in the new Mandorla (Kristin gifted me with a copy) and you ought to check it out: it's lushly beautiful writing.

I felt like my own reading was one of the strongest performances I've ever given, and it presents to me a kind of challenge to live up to my burgeoning sense that poetry readings ought to be treated as performances, with all the demands on the writer and promises to the audience that that implies. There were a number of environmental factors that contributed: I had a lectern with a microphone and an excellent sound system, which makes it possible to exercise a lot more control over tone and volume than when reading unassisted; I had a large audience that seemed unusually receptive to what I had to offer them; and the atmosphere of a gallery with half-assembled exhibits permits concentrated attention and conviviality while avoiding the sterility of the classroom, the formality of the auditorium, and the tumult of the tavern. I had also, almost inadvertantly, assembled some material that I was able to shape into a performance more easily and with more effect than I've managed in the past. Beginning with some new work with narrative elements and a tone by turns whimsical and sinister, I then moved backward to a piece from the new chapbook, "Lecture on Modernism," which had a similarly playful tone. Then I shifted to more serious ground with an excerpt from Compos(t)ition Marble, a book I've had mixed success from reading in the past (I apparently once bored the pants off some guy at a reading I did in New York soon after that book was published). Key to the success of this reading was in preparing the audience (telling them it was my 9/11 poem, my New York-love poem), and then in presenting just a few lyrical slices of it; the poem is too dense, I think, to be read out loud from the beginning for any but the most patient listeners. Finally, I closed with a poem from Selah, "Infected Elegy," that I've had some practice with, and which seems to be one of the most performable pieces in my inventory.

I learned a lot from doing this reading, and though I don't expect I'll ever be able to exactly repeat it, it's worth meditating on the value of performance when it comes to poetry readings. Some poets, perhaps even most poets, seem either to disparage the idea of performance or else simply don't give it much thought, while others actively and programmatically exercise a kind of anti-charisma in their readings--the idea being, I suppose, to deflect attention away from the poet's personality and back toward the text. I have some theoretical sympathy with the premises of the anti-reading: poets are not extroverts, as a rule, and if we were all natural performers we'd probably choose other lines of work. More importantly, much of the poetry I value most is highly textual in its effects, requiring the kind of rereading or dwelling-with that reading out loud doesn't permit. I would be dismayed if an emphasis on performance and orality were to diminish the already marginal space such work occupies, because I think that's where the real R&D work of the language gets done.

On the other hand, I've been bored, irritated, or enraged by far too many readings, with or without theoretical bases for their anti-performative qualities, to wish to inflict the same on any live audience I might be fortunate enough to have. I see no necessary incompatibility with being entertaining and with doing strong and challenging work. Some poems, or portions of poems, are less oral than others, as I've learned with Compos(t)ition Marble, and I've also had trouble finding a good way to read from Fourier Series, which is primarily visual in its arrangement. But if you do have arrows in your quiver that lend themselves to being guided by the voice, why not fire them? Variety of emotional affect is also key, I think: that's why I started with comic poems and then took a more serious and elegiac turn halfway through. Anything a poet can do to displace or shatter the mild glazed hum that seems to preside over the vast majority of poetry readings is to the good.

To embrace the performer's role at a poetry reading bears with it a number of risks, none greater in my view than in presenting yourself as someone who wishes to please. This is crucially different from wishing to be liked, which I think crushes many poets as performers because of the modesty and self-effacement that goes with that wish. It's also different from the desire to make a sensation that I associate with natural performers, the people who are always "on" whether they have a podium or not. The desire to please means above all accepting, at least for the duration of the performance, the mantle of difference between yourself and the audience: you are no longer part of its community, but a figure with distinct powers and responsibilities toward that community, and you have to risk not just their rejection but your own momentary sense of self-estrangement from that community. It's that little voice in your head that you imagine chorusing in everyone else's head: "Who does he think he is?"

From this fear arises, I think, the instinct to pander--to get everyone laughing and nodding, to deflect hostility in the manner of the class clown. It's a tough instinct to resist, and it's tough not to find it contemptible in oneself or others. But to perform well isn't to pander: a strong performer of poetry is willing to risk offending his audience or making them a bit uncomfortable; s/he's willing to risk emotionality; s/he's willing to risk even boring them a little, or to try and make them think. All of these negative affects are capable of pleasing when bound up in a performance that has some shape, some sense of arc or destiny in its five or fifteen or forty-five minutes length. A big part of this comes simply from trusting your own work: from believing in its potential to move people and, yes, to entertain them, if it's possible to imagine "entertainment" that doesn't partake of distraction. Which links, in ways I don't have time to explore just now, with the willingness to take one's vocation seriously--in public--that so fascinates me in poets like Jennifer Moxley and Jorie Graham.

After the reading there was a friendly gathering at Kristin's house with some of the grad students (alas, I didn't catch their names), and a long wandering discussion of the sort that I have too rarely these days about poetry, poets, teaching, and the movies. I received another gift, this time from Michael: his new anthology from Teachers & Writers, Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, which I think is going to prove enormously useful to my teaching, and we were up quite late (something else I don't do much of these days, except when awakened by Sadie). All in all a thoroughly pleasing and satisfying experience; I'd go back to Normal any time.

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