Sunday, April 6, 2008

Some Thoughts on Readings

(The photo is from Rodrigo Toscano’s “Clock, Deck, and Movement,” a poetics theater work for five actors performed at the Bowery Poetry Club on March 29, 2008)

I remember Tom Mandel once saying to me that giving a reading to a group of gathered friends and other interested people was, for him, in many ways the highpoint of life as a poet. The chance to have others respond to your work, to feel part of a group that was interested in the things you had done, was something that led to a sense of connectedness and value, the sense that you were not alone in the endeavor of wanting to create literature.

Just a few days ago in Washington DC, Tina Darragh talked to me about a reading Robert Creeley gave at Georgetown University several years before his death, in which Creeley had said that for him it was always difficult to avoid sentimentalizing such moments. That in fact, now that he was old, he didn’t always even try to avoid it.

My most recent trip to the east coast reminded me, again, of the significance of literary readings, both to individuals and to a culture. It was great to see so many people I liked, people I had not seen in several years in some cases, people whose character or work or both has been important to me. It was great to meet some people I had never met before and who I hope to see again. And it was gratifying—I’m not ashamed to admit it—to get the sense that people liked and respected the work of mine they heard.

I don’t think I’m being naive. I understand how complicated and even vexing a reading can be. I know that there are conflicts between writers, dubious alliances, misunderstandings, unfair likes and dislikes. I know that public readings are often events during which those problems can be staged. I know that some people don’t like readings but go anyway, from a sense of obligation or just not wanting to be left out. I understand that such events involve a politics and a psychology, that there are critiques and resentments.

For myself, though, whether I’m reading or someone else is, readings are often the way I learn most about writers and literature. Even when a reading is bad—and as we all know, many are—I’m rarely bored. In fact some of the worst readings I’ve been to have also become the most legendary. There may be nothing more fascinating than an epically bad performance; certainly I remember them long after many excellent performances have faded. In any case, listening to someone read their work, whether or not the performance is good, tells me things about who that person is that reading the work on the page couldn’t. Hearing some writers read makes me more interested in their work. Hearing others helps me confirm what I already liked or didn’t.

For those of you living in cities where readings happen all the time, as I did for many years, I understand that after awhile readings can get tiring. One of the things I liked about DC was that we rarely had readings in the summer. Nine months of them, with three or four a month, was enough, and I was happy to go several straight months without a reading. By the time fall came around, I always felt ready to go to readings again. Or if I didn’t, that was a sure indication that something significant was wrong.

But imagine an environment in which there were few readings, or none. Imagine a place where there was almost no one other than yourself interested in literature. Imagine, even, living in a place, as too many people still do, where it’s illegal to gather and say what you want to say. Or, less extreme, imagine what it would be like to not know that readings existed, to not know that there was a culture of people who cared deeply about the act of reading and writing.

In fact, most Americans live in that last place. One of the reasons that I require my creative writing students to go to readings is that many of them simply don’t know that there is such a thing. And some of them, more than you or I might have thought perhaps, are intrigued and even amazed by what they see. They didn’t know that there were living writers, actual people who cared about literature, who would stand up and read it and talk about it. They didn’t know that such people would talk to them. They certainly didn’t know that they themselves might become such a person. And as it turns out, at least a few of them do. And if they do, it’s sometimes the literary reading that most grabs them, that makes the world of literature seem real.

When my students ask me what it’s like to be a writer, many of those questions full of course with preconceptions about publishing and the concept of fame, one of the things I tell them I love most is that I get a chance to know so many interesting people in so many interesting places. I can go to Vancouver, or Portugal, or New York, and not be just a tourist but instead talk to people there who share my interests, who have things to tell me about art and culture and politics, in those places and elsewhere. Some students find that idea amazing. They themselves talk only to their families, friends, co-workers and maybe their teachers. Whether they love some of those people or not, for these students the idea of a world out there, or even close at hand, where literature and ideas are things that one would be allowed to love and talk about can seem a revelation.

I remember what it was like to be 16. I liked books, I liked music. I had friends in heavy metal and southern rock cover bands who would play parties on Saturday nights and we would go there, drink bad beer and rock out. I remember there was a sense of power in it, how that power seemed different from my daily life, the one where I spent most of my time lonely, angry, sad, and working a job I hated. I remember the feeling of being trapped, a feeling that for all too many good reasons I’ve never left behind. But I remember how for a moment, while we were all wrapped up in the music, another kind of world seemed possible. But then of course it was back to the alienation of routine, back to the “no way out” mentality that dominated my life until I was almost 30.

If, when I was 16, working nights at a local fast food restaurant in a suburb as faceless and nasty as every suburb you know about, someone had asked me whether, pushing thirty years later, I would like a life in which I had written books that had been published and knew fascinating people all over the world and sometimes could travel to see them, I would have said yeah, I’d like that, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. If they’d said, okay, but the trade-off is that you’ll still have to work as hard then as you’re working now, you’ll still sometimes feel trapped and lost and alone, I would have said so what, I feel that way already, so I might as well get the good part too, right? My 16-year old self would have thought that the idea of that kind of life would be pretty great.

And I think so too. Nor do I think it’s sentimental to suggest that one measure (though hardly the only one) of the value of life and writing can be found in the kind of connections it helps us create with others. If the literary reading, even with its frequent alienation and ridiculousness, turns out to be crucial at least to my sense of that connection, well, so what? The world has always been a stranger place than I imagined.


maryrose larkin said...

I love this post. Thank you.


Curtis Faville said...

Your post here presents the potentiality of poetry readings in a larger context of participation within a social milieu, as if they were vehicles for socialization, political involvement, and creative development.

Poetry readings are first and foremost a form of entertainment, of performance. Like all performance, their success or failure depends to a considerable degree upon training and native ability. Readings are a form of theatrical projection.

There is no necessary relationship between the ability to make literature--to write literature on a medium and preserve it or disseminate it through reproduction--and the quality with which it might be read publicly or recorded by a device.

In other words, the creation of literature--let's say, Dickinson's ability to write poems, or Henry Fielding's ability to write novels--does not depend in any way upon their or anyone else's ability to create a performance out of fruits of their production.

People--even critics--often confuse the ability to read, or act, with the quality of the material itself. Usually, the best readers of texts are those with professional training. That's because reading and acting skills are different in kind from composition. There are even hybrid forms where speakers may improvise extemporarily, and find success. But there are few readers who would credit this technique with producing texts of lasting merit.

The practice you describe, in which poets read "to a group of gathered friends and other interested people," suggests a closed system. Such gatherings tell one nothing about the quality or applicability of the texts beyond the limits of that specific audience. They may, and probably do, constitute preaching to the choir. This is not to say that the quality of such endeavors--or of the texts-- will necessarily be lower, but only that to idealize such activity as productive, is a form of speculation.

There are great poets who are poor readers. There are great readers who are only mediocre poets. Many poets undertake readings as a professional obligation. Others may choose not to do them, either out of a recognition that they haven't the desire or the skill to project, or simply are not interested in public speaking.

To assume that to succeed as a poet, or to make creative "progress" one MUST read publicly, is obviously the sheerest nonsense, as most of the literature that survives from history was not oral, was not conceived as a public (live or enhanced) projection, and did not depend upon the forum of public reading for its inspiration or existence.

I know this is a contrarian's view these days. I have been to, and enjoyed a few good readings, but mostly readings make me uncomfortable, and embarrassed for the participants. Professional theatre is a different matter entirely.

To require that literature be read--or "understood" in a way that just reading it to oneself wouldn't accomplish--to be appreciated, is wrong.

To advocate the reading circuit as a vehicle for professional advancement or creative opportunity is also quite cynical, since it encourages young writers to believe that developing skills and techniques in acting and public speaking will turn them into poets, or at least will facilitate their work. Because it simply isn't true.

Also, there is the fallacy that works that may read well in public--to varying kinds of audiences with different expectations and tastes--will be good in ways that also work on the page. Histrionic and dramatic writing can be very effective, while not succeeding in ways that non-dramatic texts can.

Much of the poetry culture in the U.S. exists as an adjunct to the academic "workshop" system, and a high percentage of the "audience" for poetry books and readings feeds off that system. But success within that competitive structure of advancement is colored by every kind of distraction, including greed, favoritism, jealousy, unequal opportunity, prejudice. Often it seems that poetry readings are just another form of professional qualification, or rewards for fame.

I think a little less emphasis on readings would be a healthy thing in the present environment. Loneliness is good for writers; if they're going to become good, or better, writers, loneliness will certainly be their fate. You can't write in a crowd, or by committee. T.S. Eliot and E.E. Cummings and Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore didn't.

I think that's the deeper truth you miss in your post.

Curtis Faville said...

Re: My post just sent--

Correction: in paragraph #10, "To require that literature be read" should read "To require that literature must be heard"

Thx. CF

mgushuedc said...

Great post, and perhaps the best thing (defense?) I have read about poetry readings. Thank you.

Sheila Murphy said...

Every so often, there emerges a post that crystallizes an experience you value and even treasure. You have done so very purely and beautifully here. Thank you.

Brent Cunningham said...

Thanks for these thoughts, Mark. I think you touch on something very interesting with your comments about bad, boring readings. I have the theory that, for people who are in poetry "scenes" and therefore attend a lot of readings, there must be something at least tolerable, and even somehow luring, about the experience of going to a boring reading. Those, like Curtis, who sincerely detest them would never take the risk of a bad reading for the sake of it possibly being a good one, but I do that all the time. For so many years I agonized at readings I disliked, and often the boring readings seemed to be the majority, yet I kept going back. Why? Now I think there must be some Cage-ian experience of boredom that, though uncomfortable, certain people periodically need. As someone with no regular religious ritual (recently I've gotten interested in the practice of Buddhist meditation, but not yet to the point of actually doing it) boring readings are maybe my only chance to connect with a part of my mind that is rarely visited. There really aren't many locations in our culture where I can feel such a sense of both silence and verbal agitation, where I'm both alone and part of a group. There's a whole complicated dynamic: first you feel just a little bored but keep trying to listen and concentrate, then you keep forgetting to concentrate and find yourself looking around the room at the audience or the wall, then finally if you can't find anything to get ahold of in the work you give up, go into your own thoughts--but it turns out you can't go too far into yourself with someone reading words at you, so you often come back despite yourself and listen to a few phrases just because what else is there to do, then you find yourself looking around the room again, etc. Somewhere along the line, I invented a technique where I ask myself some very direct questions during the experience, such as: what exactly IS this feeling of boredom? What part of my body am I feeling it in? Why do I consider it painful? How is it like or unlike the restlessness I feel rather regularly? Does it have gradations or levels within itself? Why does it make me want to flee from it so intensely? Does asking these questions deflect it?

Here's a relevant quote from John Waters I like (I even put it in a poem). It's from a radio interview so probably not totally accurate, but the idea is there: "There's no such thing as a bad film. If you think you're watching a bad film, pick a detail and watch only for that detail. Like only look at the lamps. Pretend it's a film about lamps."

Tho, to be honest, it doesn't work as well at poetry readings. But interesting to try.



Curtis Faville said...

Golly, Brent, I don't "detest readings." Detest is a pretty strong word. Maybe they make me uncomfortable, in much the same way that they do you...?

My problem stems, I think, from my workshop period at Iowa. There were many readings--all the faculty read, and many of the students did--and then there was a constant stream of "visitors" or people passing through who would read. The workshop was very competitive, and the writers (poets) were like stars. You could have traded them like baseball cards, "whoo, Kinnell's stock is going up, John Logan's is going down! I'll give you two James Tates for one Howard Nemerov!"

As a writer, I've never felt the kind of certainty and confidence I associated with professionally presented material. When I heard James Merrill the first time, I thought he must have studied with Lee Strasburg. What a voice! And yet, the literal connection between how a writer-reader is perceived IN PERFORMANCE is almost invariably response to a technique.

Laurence Olivier has always been held up as the supreme example of the outside-in acting style, of all technique. Whereas you have Brando, the classic method acting style, every feeling must be experienced internally to make it work as performance. This same dichotomy torments the apprehension of poetry readings. It's a rare writer who can project his word in such a way as to make it not only "work" as dramatic action, but not betray its essential underlying character. If I were going to study acting, I would most certainly be a follower of the Olivier style, one in which character is a constructed, synthetic archetype, rather than a tortured ordeal of emotional turmoil.

Bad poetry readings are like bad concerts of classical music. Your mind wanders. Sometimes it wanders to interesting places, sometimes not. I'm always suspicious of responding emotionally to highly charged subject-matter. For instance, a writer's spouse has died, grief is "in the air" and the poems become increasingly "sublime" and dense with self-pity. The likelihood is that it's all a sham, no matter how real the feeling is. It almost never works.

With highly abstract works, such as those like Coolidge, or Palmer, or Watten, I find I much prefer to pace my reading to the rate of attention and apprehension. Readings don't bring ANYTHING to works like these, and actually they probably shouldn't be read out loud at all. They aren't oral. They're ratiocinative, iterative, totally undramatic.

Personally, I always knew I could never speak as well as those whose technique I admired. Bill Berkson, for instance, or George Starbuck--totally inside their skin, living examples of three-dimensional identity. Who would want to stand up and be a mediocre reader? Not me. I have too much respect for the audience to subject them to it.

maryrose larkin said...


I count words at spectacularly bad readings. Like "of" or "and" or "the"

Words like lamps.

Chris said...

Bad poetry readings are like bad concerts of classical music. Your mind wanders.

This happens at good readings (or concerts) too. Also, when reading from the page. Art encourages that, sometimes. Also, there are bad readings where the mind stays focused. Also, also.

Mark, this was a very nice post, and got me to thinking about how I did have poetry readings to attend as a teen, and how that didn't help much at all. Alas.

Todd Colby said...


poetowen said...

Thank you for a great post. I’ve been hosting readings for years, and think about these questions all the time.
When everything clicks there’s nothing like a great reading. Yes, it’s a separate art, and every poet
shouldn’t have to include public readings in his/her repertoire, but they can be a good introduction to
the work on the page. Sure there are more misses than hits, but who cares? Nobody ever died
from boredom.
Poetry readings are risky—that’s what I like about them. Fear of embarrassment, fear of boring people... It’s kind of fun seeing the poets sweat. Sometimes a great performance follows. I think poets should be put on the spot more.
What’s with all this lonely, sullen art talk? No offense to the ghost of Emily, but that’s high school stuff. Good poems are written at parties, too. C’mon Curtis, do a reading at Moe’s Books. We have a new microphone.

Ryan W. said...

what I like about readings is that it's the one chance I get to hear one person's voice, and whatever that person wants to do, uninterrupted, for 20 minutes or 40 minutes or however long it is. and that person can do whatever they want with that time.

that to me is the tension, or should be, and often is... given that they can do anything, what will this person do with their 20 minutes?

unless I find someone really off-putting, which isn't usually the case, their physical voice for X minutes will have an inherent appeal and value regardless of the words they say. especially when contrasted with the cultural and commercial noise that the reading temporarily shuts out.