My Night On the Town: At a Poetry Reading
December 9, 2011 § 5 Comments
Last night, on a whim motivated most by the heater not working at my house, I participated in my first ever poetry reading. I’ve done plenty of readings in my day — academic papers, prose pieces here & there, even a sermon once upon a time — but never a poem. (Well, I suppose that’s not entirely true. The sermon‘s centerpiece was a reading of Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Perhaps, then, better to say I’ve never publicly read my poetry.)
The venue was lovely, the chairs haphazardly strewn about the room with care. Perhaps a bit too dimly lit for my feeble eyes, particularly when I was at the microphone, desperately maneuvering my paper this way and that in hopes of apprehending just enough light that my verbal stumbling might not match my clumsy approach to the stage. All in all, this, it seemed, was as good a place as any for my virginal gropings with the form.
You see, I’m not very confident when it comes to dealing in verse. The paragraph is my more natural environment, with its scenery of appropriately placed subordinate clauses and the like. I am as invested in language as any poet, or at least the ones I most value, but to self-identify as a poet, or to set my pieces in the forms of verse, this very often feels like a pose I cannot dare live up to. But what can I say, sometimes whimsy and courage become the kissingest of cousins.
That said, I wish I could report that putting my dizziness on public display went well. Oh, the reading was fine, even if I couldn’t quite see my punctuation and my sentence flows occasionally were floods. No, the problem was one of tone. As it turned out, the setting for poetry being read is nearly as important as the meter in which it was written. What the chairs didn’t tell me upon arrival, the host’s invitation for all in attendance to make their favorite zoo animal sound, for reasons quite beyond me, did: namely, that this simply was not my scene. It was then that I noticed the sheer amount of alcohol making the rounds. Beer and wine was being sold, not unexpectedly, of which I partook. More troubling were the nearly-drained bottles of whisky and bourbon I saw in the hands and at the lips of those who very savagely, in my view, were pacing about, like the very animals they were mimicking. As my fellow poets read, there were, in the words of my Southern upbringing, hoots and hollers of apparent affirmation — affirming whom, the hooter or the hooted, I could but wonder (or whether there was a difference). It all felt vaguely like the raucous church services you sometimes see on basic cable, the very ones I used to attend, with its preachers in suits ill-fitting and parishioners in pews swooning.
I don’t wish to say the readings were bad. Because sandwiched between the self-astonished cliches and monotone metaphors, as rife in my work as anybody elses, there were several moments of genuinely wonderful writing. One gentleman in particular matched his vivid, somewhat Oedipal imagery with a haunted vocal performance I only wish I could replicate. It was stirring, and I was quite happy I did not have to follow him.
None of this should have surprised me as much as it did, but the truly enduring lesson of the night was that the first-person pronoun is alive and doing quite well — it is, in fact, learning more about itself each day. That sounds more mean-spirited than I intend. If memory serves, mine was the only work that did not so much as whisper the word “I.” This was not so much a rebellion against the prevailing custom as it was, quite by accident and realized only in hindsight, socially appropriate. It would, after all, be very rich indeed if I, a white straight man, the face of literary propriety for far too long, were to insist others should be as self-effacing as I when they’ve not had the built-in opportunities to be self-assertive without even trying or wanting to be so. This is to say, I get it, their self-discoveries & sundry affirmations, their wide-eyed wonderment at what a body can do, theirs in particular, their animal calls & sexual frankness about raging boners, etc. I get and appreciate the celebration, but it is one I think I will in the future miss on account of staying home & reading Rilke.