Poetry readings and what they mean

When you read a book of poems, you know that someone else has likely read that book, so on one level you become a member of a community of people who have read it and developed a response to it. But you don’t have much awareness of that community. Your membership is not active or visible.

For an example of readerly membership, consider old-fashioned library cards. When I was in grade school, I’d check a book out by signing my name on a lined index card that was in the front of the book. The librarian would take the card and date stamp it. I could see on the card in the book a list of everyone else who had read the book before me. I could make myself known to them, and I’d be known as a reader of that book by anyone who read it after me or who had the impulse to look at the card. In this way I became aware of other kids who shared my reading tastes, my interests; as meta-information one level removed I became aware that two or three other kids in the school read as much and as widely as I did.

A poetry reading or spoken word event creates a visible literary community. The sharing of information is visible. You know who’s heard what you’ve heard. Even if you don’t say anything, by attending the event you become engaged in public discourse, or potentially engaged.

In blogging communities, the visibility of readership creates strong reading communities. For example, I feel a kinship of shared knowledge with someone who has been a regular commenter on a blog that we both read. I can see not only that they read it, and not only the tenor of their responses, but a glimpse of their level of engagement with the text. I may not know their own blog or their work, but I have a textual relationship with that fellow commenter.

Wanting a lot of people to come to your reading goes way beyond wanting to feel a diva-like popularity. When people come to a reading, their presence magnifies the importance of the event in each others’ eyes, because they personally become visible to a larger literary community. They have an opportunity to make connections with other listeners and to have conversations about the work. Events with only 6 people attending can be powerful too, if those 6 people respond strongly and put their information visibily into the mix. If they all go off and write reviews of the event, or poems in response to what they heard, or have a blog discussion the next day, then an event of literary importance has probably occurred.

In literature as it is treated in the literary-academic world, there are authors, readers/listeners, and critics. The categories overlap. It’s particularly powerful when we see their strong overlap, for example when poets write poetry about other poets’ poems, or when a novel has complex intertextual relationships. When this happens, we as readers realize we have a relationship to the text that is potentially creative and critical. In addition, the subjectivity of the critic is strongly exposed. We also as readers can now see something of the internal library, or the blogroll, the information feed, of the author. As a reader and critic, I want to know the information feed of whoever I’m reading.

I take notes at readings and think about what I’m hearing, about patterns and fashions in poetry. It’s difficult to write frankly about what’s good and bad in other people’s writing without being offensive or hurting people. I’m hoping I can strike a balance: focus on the positive without pulling my punches. I’d like to practice exercising judgement and drawing other people into critical thinking about poetry and translation.

Here’s a list of some of the readings and open mics that I have been going to over the last 5 years in the Bay Area:

Waverly Writers, in Palo Alto
Art 21, also in Palo Alto
Writers With Drinks, San Francisco
Kvetsh, San Francisco
Edinburgh Castle, San Francisco
The Saturday Poets, in Burlingame
San José Art League, in the Minor Street house around 2000-2002
Willow Glen Books, San José
Poetry Center San José
Redwood City Not Dead Yet Poets’ Society
Various reading at City Lights, Modern Times, Valencia St. Books, Chimera, Kepler’s, & other bookstores.

I hope I can expand this list and take a peek into other readings, other scenes that have their own particular thing going. I recently wrote an article for a book on the Waverley Poets on this specific subject: the academic/literary page poets and the spoken word poets don’t have a context for judging each others’ works, because they don’t know each others’ information feeds.

I’d like to get some of the people in different scenes around the Bay Area reading or listening to each other, and looking for each others’ ways of being intertextual and literary.

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2 Responses to Poetry readings and what they mean

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  2. Steve says:

    Hello,
    I must say, I really appreciated your perspective on poetry readings. Thiese are something I really enjoy, but don’t get to attend very often. When you attend, how do you tell the difference between people who are just there to be seen (snobby) and those who really appreciate the words and meaning of the poems? I have a hard time reading people.
    Steve

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