Nature of the reading
Ok. It’s one thing to read your stuff out loud—another to cast your fate to the winds and get the audience to do the reading part, even take requests for what is to be spoken later on if desired. That’s if you’re even at your own poetry reading.
For a while I have been grappling with the nature and meaning of the reading in the modern age: the new millennium, omnipotent access to the interweb and cellphone networks, the one dimensional nature of the txt message, the constricting and closing of the senses. We poets do readings, we read our writing out loud to a hushed and respectful audience if it’s a literary festival / art gallery / museum kinda gig or more often to the background-site-specific sounds of cash registers, espresso machines, traffic, shouting…
Life is too short for most people to be able to mono-task. We’ve developed the knack of doing many things at once, and so traditional stand-on-stage-and-read-poems-to-quiet-audience-through-microphone readings are to me increasingly becoming an anachronism. Nobody has the time for that shit, homey—we’ve got busy lives and your stuff is just another layer of non-digiglitch intell that has to be integrated into mine in some way.
Don’t get me wrong—under some circumstances the traditional reading, where an audience and a poet are as one, can be exhilaratingly amazing, for both parties. Both have done good work on the reading and the listening fronts and the shared experience like that of going to a church or cinema is part of the thread of society.
In Dunedin I started doing ‘readings’ where the audience were given 25 poems (each as a little foldout book) divided into easily digestible sub-group boxes of, say, sad or happy or angry, overly political, geeky, obtuse, or combinations of them all. Not subject to the vagrancies of the microphone and the PA—the standing up on a stage elevation while everyone keeps a respectful silence thingo—the audience can determine the order of the reading themselves. I’m working towards readings where I don’t even enter the equation. Poet (if there) just prepares the raw ingredients using transparent publishing methodology. I now have big round cheese boxes containing A3 poemettes dating from 1987 to now, made of good old seasoned banana box cardboard and the covers of hardback Reader’s Digest books, to perform yourselves or wonder about. I get to go outside the venue or cafe, have a coffee and a couple of thoughtful cigarettes.
I don’t want an audience to sit around and listen—I’d rather that they read the poems first or at all… They can read them quietly in a corner with the iPod on, bring dinner, take turns reading them loudly to friends, talk amongst themselves, sip their drinks, txt, spill their drinks. You can tweet kibbles hoho. The audience get to pick which emotions they want to read—I ‘read’ a short set based on attendee feedback and my own perverse sense of mood and appropriateness. YMMV, as we say. What’s the ‘right’ order of works in the procession of mixing it up? Not too many sad poems in a row, be funny but not all the time, wistful, humane, angry—whatever.
People are free to talk to me, discuss the point, moot or not, on most matters. I will try and remember to wear the OSH-approved hi-viz poet safety jacket. Bring your own if you have one.
What I am getting at is this. A poem or a collection of poems is available to be read in many different ways and formats: using bog standard carbon rich tree byproduct or as an ebook or viewed on a smartphone. The means of duplication has, over the past 20 years, started to vary enormously as we come up with new and more high tech ways of presenting the written word. All the while, poetry readings are still stuck in pre-digital dark where seemingly only one paradigm is open for the poet to conduct readings. Under this very analogue construct, the poet is limited to one reading at one time. You can’t be physically in two places at once doing this kind of oldskool stuff—it just isn’t possible.
Come and go as you please—at the end of the night the boxes and books all get packed away into another box and the David Merritt Poetry Experience trucks off to another cafe / bookshop / bar / library / gallery. Usual legal disclaimers apply.
(This “essay” was assembled from a number of fragments by Lauren Strain & Chris Holdaway)