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What is wrong with poetry readings these days?

August 9, 2010 \pm\31 2:03 pm
Ginsberg Reading

Ginsberg Reading. Everyone Hurry Up and Get Awkward!

I’m effing mad. I want you to know that right from the get-go, this is a rant. As such, it will ideally be unpolished, which will symbolize the emotional foundation supporting the words that end up on this here web page, and further, you might glean its genuine-ness from that as well. Because I’m pissed. Now I’m always one for self-psychologizing, so I’ll just admit up front as well that I realize what’s underneath that anger is really sadness, disappointment, maybe a dash of bitterness too. So what is all this about then? Readings. Creative types. The art world, the literary world, the worlds some of us still have to participate in, unless of course I’m wrong and just a bit of a masochist.

Cut to the chase here. Last Thursday night I went to a reading. It was a typical shindig — mostly people in their twenties, took place in a warehouse right next to the river and the train tracks. A place where many artists (mostly visual) have collectivized and pooled resources and found a community environment for their studios. None of the walls go up more than seven feet tall, so it’s like an interior artist shanty town, so to speak. Maybe 25 studios inside, and concrete floors, some community spaces, including a hallway right down the middle. There was art hung on those hallway walls, one side featured work from a photographer and the other a friend of mine who makes paintings. Chairs were set up in the middle, maybe eight rows of 5-6 chairs each. At the head, facing the entrance and in front of all the rows of chairs was a mic and a couple of PA speakers, as well as a PA rig set up to project the poets’ voices. All normal to the eye.

Now I don’t want to shit on everything and everyone there, just the ones with stink on their pants already. Here’s my beef. What the eff is wrong with young people socializing these days? Everyone seems so g.d. scared and all turtle-shelled, yet they’re out socializing. Some people were nice, to be sure, and I’d like to re-hug those people and excuse my embarrassing anger here. I am just so very beyond being over the quaint sort of awkwardness, the mock-shyness, the weird Bambi aesthetic that hangs over the art and poetry scenes in most cities like a black cloud of insecurity.

Am I insecure? Who isn’t on some level. Get over it. Christ. I think if you want to write, that’s wonderful. Everyone should write if they feel the urge. And paint, let me say that too — if you feel it, find a place to make a beautiful mess, and go make it. It’s fair game for everyone who wants to set up a flag, stick it in the ground, and claim some territory within which to make stuff. But if you cross the line and publish, or set up a reading for yourself, do anything PUBLIC wherein you enter into a tacit contract with others in a shared space, then you have responsibilities.

You don’t get to be an insecure ninny. It doesn’t serve your community and it isn’t cute, for lack of a better word. I see this all the time. People have the balls to get up and read in front of thirty-five people, and then you go and compliment them afterwards, maybe you’re a stranger with no more of an agenda than to say — “Hey, we’re both members of this unspoken community, I know it isn’t easy to write and then get up and read to a bunch of strangers, but you did a great job, and I support what you’ve just done” — and all of a sudden, it’s like they’ve never been let out in public before that very night, and they used up all their courage to read their four poems and to receive their bit of clap-worthy praise. I don’t get it. And I sort of don’t want to get it, so I probably never will.

Maybe this is because I haven’t lapsed over into the academic side of things, but I’ve been there before, and it’s got its own brand of social awkwardness, so maybe that’s just these people-types all “grown up.” I’m in my mid-thirties, so maybe I’ve just outgrown some of my more obvious social insecurities, but does that mean then that in looking at my creative peers in their twenties, with whom I am sharing venues for writing both on the page and in public, that they deserve to be excused for not learning how to build community? For not being even remotely available to engage socially and learn about each other? Sometimes I think this is about humility. One needs to understand how to be humble first, before knowing how to appreciate someone else. Maybe the other side of the coin of insecurity is a weird kind of mock-arrogance. You don’t notice others, your insecurity has imploded on itself, creating a kind of black hole blankness that only has energy directed inward at yourself, so there isn’t much of you that’s available to put out in the world to be engaged with and by others. Maybe that’s it? Maybe I do want to try to understand it after all. Maybe it’s so upsetting that I will always wonder what the heck is going on. I left with such a foul taste in my mouth on Thursday night, I am still thinking about it. My mildly obsessive nature doesn’t even excuse my morbid curiosity.

Insecurity exists in the art worlds pretty much the same way that breathing exists for normal types in other social circles, at this point. The art world, and maybe some part of the younger literary world, has become a reservoir for socially awkward types and gestures. Insecurity as a substitute for personality and the warmth that it takes to build community is everywhere. It’s a blanket condition if you do anything creative these days, it would seem. Like every high school nerd found each other and developed their own elitist social club. And nothing reeks of asshole-ness like a person who always found themselves on the outside of the cool school, who then goes on to develop their own inner sanctum of cool, and clearly gets off way too hard on letting everyone know exactly who is on the inside, and more importantly, who is not.

My point? If you’re going to have a public face to your career, think about others in your social circles. Cultivate their acceptance and humble yourselves just long enough to be open to engaging with those around you. There is this perception that it’s every person for themselves, that if you can just find an elder creative type whose agenda aligns perfectly with your own, then you might have a shot. And that is one way to jettison the masses and find yourself thrust headlong into a successful creative career. Isn’t that what the MFA is essentially all about? But maybe if all you’re really after is recognition and the spoils of the chase, then you should instead consider being a lawyer. They’ll still let you write and recite, if that’s what you’re after. And you won’t, God forbid, have to socialize with anyone when you leave the courtroom.

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20 Comments
  1. Robin Elizabeth Sampson permalink
    August 9, 2010 \pm\31 2:26 pm 2:26 pm

    Nice rant. Sometimes I think there’s this perception that if one is a poet (in some manner of speaking) that one has to “be” a poet in all the tangled, banal ways that people think of poets. In other words, you can’t be friendly and happy at all, ever. LOL. I consider myself exceedingly lucky to have fallen into a real “community” of poets when I first ventured forth with my first, tentative attempts. And I was in my forties and horribly f-ing shy and unsure of myself (which is often mistaken for standofishness I now realize).

    And I definitely was wowed by this statement: “Maybe the other side of the coin of insecurity is a weird kind of mock-arrogance. You don’t notice others, your insecurity has imploded on itself, creating a kind of black hole blankness that only has energy directed inward at yourself, so there isn’t much of you that’s available to put out in the world to be engaged with and by others.

    I wonder if the event that causes that implosion has something to do with the fear of appearing arrogant in the first place. Hmmmm.

    • August 9, 2010 \pm\31 4:41 pm 4:41 pm

      Thanks for writing this. I’ve been really stressed out about readings these days myself. Like, I want to do readings because how else do I not exist in a droopy bubble of self. But then, readings suck, and I feel awkward when I do them, and everyone else is awkward, and no one’s reading very loud and if they are its annoying, and I can never remember to care about the characters when people read fiction, and I can’t remember their names, and poets do that purposefully awkward tilting upward of the last word in their stanza, and everyone thinks they need to look like what a writer is supposed to look like but I sorta want to wear like spandex or something and a cleavage-showing sequin number and read really normally as if I was just talking to my friend but I don’t know if I can do that because then again, trying to be weird is also a standard creative-type social tool, and where does that get me? Let’s start a movement to re-define what the “reading” can look like — and I don’t mean slam poetry or a trip to the Urban Outfitters sale rack, but something to bring our authenticity back a little bit, a legitimate call for something other than attention (or that ever-so-popular reverse move : shunning attention in order to receive it).

      • August 9, 2010 \pm\31 5:53 pm 5:53 pm

        Molly you rock. I totally agree. My girlfriend said to me after the reading — does anybody read from the heart anymore? I think I can tell, and no, I will answer my own question, I know of literally like one other poet or writer who appears to actually care about what they are reading or writing about. The ironic distancing that goes on in creativity these days is only to my dismay. Care, people, or don’t bother anymore.

    • August 9, 2010 \pm\31 5:50 pm 5:50 pm

      It’s all a very strange, mercurial thing, to be sure — in the end, though, I just think to myself, if you’re writing and putting work out there, then at bottom, you must be doing it to connect with others. Art and writing are these supremely powerful tools, like music, that allow us to commune and share and realize we’re all a part of the same thing — so then to write, read out loud, and then NOT put effort into sharing? Blows my mind and upsets me. Because, essentially, the sharing starts with ourselves. Sharing ourselves. I have total sympathy for shyness. I think usually I can separate shyness from the strain of personality disorder that I’m talking about. And my argument to that would also be, well — not so shy that you can’t read in front of 35 strangers?

  2. August 9, 2010 \pm\31 5:07 pm 5:07 pm

    Please note that those who contribute to this blog (namely Dan and Melissa, who I have had the pleasure of seeing read recently) are exempt from above rant due to the fact that they each made me laugh on various occasions during their readings, which is pretty much equal to spandex (aka a good sign).

    • August 9, 2010 \pm\31 6:18 pm 6:18 pm

      As a reader (performer really, because you’re on a stage so get over it), the biggest compliment you can pay to an audience is to embarrass yourself as much as you can without sacrificing any integrity.

      Generally speaking, if I am too embarrassed to look anyone in the eye after I’ve left the stage, then I’ve done a good job, you know?

      Or amount of spandex in wardrobe. That’s probably the most accurate measurement of realness.

      • August 9, 2010 \pm\31 6:43 pm 6:43 pm

        Amen to the spandex. I’ve owned my share.

  3. August 9, 2010 \pm\31 7:12 pm 7:12 pm

    I think the main problem is that people are just assholes these days, our parents failed in raising us and everyone sucks. That may sound pessimistic, but I come from the realist school of thought. The problem of most people fundamentally being douches is then compounded by the fact that the pool for legitimate and successful artists is becoming exponentially smaller to the point where if you are too nice to someone else who is trying to swim, you might miss your chance to jump in…. limited resources, increased competition… I think that was what my one semester of polisci education taught me.

  4. Richard D. Allen permalink
    August 9, 2010 \pm\31 8:52 pm 8:52 pm

    I thought the days of diffidence were over and that poets these days were supposed to be networking machines. Also, as a lawyer I can say that it is pretty much nothing like giving poetry readings, and you still are required to socialize extensively with other lawyers after you do your lawyering.

    • August 9, 2010 \pm\31 8:55 pm 8:55 pm

      Haha. A great man once said: It’s not shit-talking if it’s constructive.

  5. paul maziar permalink
    August 10, 2010 \am\31 3:59 am 3:59 am

    A thing I think is “wrong with poetry readings these days”, is that people focus on all the things wrong with either the work or the readings.

    I’ve moved to different cities, done a few readings, and have to know there will be that putrid superficiality and understandable awkwardness; the key (for me) is to show up, be open, not have preconceived notions, and not be negative. I also, in this case, think it’s supremely important to try and do it better if one’s experience was not such a good one.

    As someone who was a part of the reading written about here, I can say this is the one negative take on the night (that I heard about), and I think it went well. Also, also, also, being a poet who read that night (and this guy’s friend(!)), I can’t help but be kinda perplexed kinda icky by questions of ‘humility’ and even ‘community’. There are just so many positive, true things about this thing that have not remotely been mentioned.

    One last quip: is it legit to show up for half of an event, promptly leave, then publicize such resolute criticisms?

    • August 10, 2010 \am\31 4:35 am 4:35 am

      Generally speaking, I’d say it is legit to leave at the halfway point of a reading. When an audience member would rather leave and get drunk, I say leave and get drunk. Or go have fun elsewhere.

      It is admirable to go to an event and try to be open to all possibilities, but there’s a very big and important difference between being open to the possibility of a reading being genuinely amazing and to “not be negative.” To not be negative is by definition not being open, right?

      Criticism is important, good or bad. Right?

      • August 10, 2010 \am\31 9:21 am 9:21 am

        I go to poetry readings to 1) Support my friends, and 2)Be genuinely knocked out of my chair with amazement.

        I acknowledge that being knocked out of my chair rarely happens.

        When it doesn’t happen, I don’t blame the poet. His or her shit just didn’t do it for me. Who am I to criticize them for that? I came to the reading. I opened myself to the likelihood of NOT being knocked over. I can’t call it a waste of time.

        Leaving halfway through a reading only to then go publicize criticism is a pretty shitty thing to do. You don’t have to like the work. A writer/reader acknowledges that not everyone is going to love their shit.

        However in a situation wherein the audience is there of their own willingness to listen to poetry being read, the decent human thing to do is stick it out. Not for the poet, but for the person who may be in the midst of being knocked over.

        If you want to leave and get drunk, wait until the end. You took a risk to go in the first place. You weren’t knocked down. Don’t interrupt for the rest.

    • August 10, 2010 \pm\31 6:35 pm 6:35 pm

      I think my tendency is to agree with the idea that criticism is important in general, whether it’s good or bad. And I think I tried to say that good things did happen at the reading — I remember talking about my “embarrassing anger” and offering to “re-hug” the nice people and then only wishing to call out the people who in my estimation had poopy-pants in this example. But most most most importantly, this was my attempt to leverage a couple of unhappy-making, isolated experiences at a poetry reading that colored my feeling of the whole night, and then to extrapolate those tiny micro-experiences onto my general feeling and experience of being in similar art and writing circles for more than ten years now.

      And on the specifics, not to be defensive because it seems to me to be well beside the point, I got there as soon as I could that evening, and made it right at the halfway point, when there was a gathering outside awaiting the start of the second half of the show. Then, I stayed and listened to the entirety of the second half, some of which was good. Then I stayed, like others, to socialize — which is the point during which the 2 isolated incidents of discomfort occurred, prompting me to A)leave that night, not in any hasty sort of way and after saying goodbye to my friends, and B)write this post more about general experiences of things that bother me in creative social gatherings.

      So there wasn’t no leaving in the middle of anything, and no leaving to go get drunk, and no boisterous interruptions of anyone reading. Nothing of the sort. I respect people for getting up in front of others — it’s not an easy thing to do, especially if you’re of the shy temperament. I said as much above. My rant is about people not knowing how to be warm and friendly and get over their weirdnesses to connect with others.

      I think from the comments here after this post that I am not alone in thinking this is part of the modern creative condition, somehow, sadly.

  6. August 10, 2010 \am\31 5:24 am 5:24 am

    to some extent every human interaction is a performance. i have a lot of empathy of people. maybe sometimes it is nice to dial down the pleasing facade and just be, especially in the company of ‘like minds’? but also i feel you are conflating issues that do not necessarily go, like social awkwardness, the pretension of social awkwardness, ego, narcissism, performance art and value of art? i don’t know. still, i love how strongly you seem to feel. it is good to feel strongly.

  7. August 10, 2010 \am\31 10:40 am 10:40 am

    I think it’s OK for an audience member to leave a reading, sure. It’s not taboo, but the more it could be done in such a way that it’s not attracting attention the better.

    What gets on my nerves is if another poet/writer who is on the bill–in a group reading, say–leaves early, especially right after they read. It’s done all the time at open mics, too. Coming late–more than 15 minutes, say–to one’s own reading kind of tests my patience.

    As for the challenged social skills of poets, totally agree. I think I am past the anger stage and onto acceptance.

  8. paul maziar permalink
    August 10, 2010 \pm\31 9:12 pm 9:12 pm

    My whole point is that if you show up halfway through and then leave quickly, you don’t even give any of it a real chance.

    Which leads me to believe there is a lot of bitterness already there, and this rant is a veil for some other unsaid, more specific things.

    Another thing I am trying to say (not like, let’s love each other everyone blah blah) is, when you move to a new city, fucking show up, be present, cultivate the relationships, do the work, and swallow the swill rather than spit on people who are doing all those things and your emotions tell you something’s missing.

  9. paul maziar permalink
    August 11, 2010 \am\31 1:18 am 1:18 am

    MB: missed yr last comment entirely before my last comment was posted. makes sense. gotcha.

  10. Keith S. Wilson permalink
    August 14, 2010 \pm\31 9:26 pm 9:26 pm

    Pretty late to the discussion, I know, but I’d just like to admit that I myself often don’t participate in the community as much as I should. Or I should say, I rarely approach others.

    The reason for this is in many ways personal (that’s how I am). But another reason for it, I think, is the difficulty in having something worthwhile to say without sounding like you’re just trying to get your own name out there. It’s difficult to remember, for me at least, anything more than a feeling for a poem that’s been read out loud, and what else is there to say, other than “good job” in that case? Molly, I think it was, is right. There’s some sort of fear that I have, at least, of seeming pretentious, and if I can’t think of anything ‘worthwhile’ to say about your poetry, I would rather say nothing than have you believe that I believed YOU had nothing worthwhile to say.

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