Friday, June 24, 2011

ADD Becomes Surf 'n' Turf

I invoke Godwin on myself right away. The poetic Godwin concerning this note is cultural, and so is more seductive than its hysterical ad hominem one-on-one discussion stopper. To steal -- then amplify -- from the same insidious psycho-history, a lie told repeatedly is even stronger when told by many.

"No one wants to attend poetry readings, so keep them to seven minutes max, then intersperse with clowns."

That's the way to bullhorn and shoehorn the distracted and wayward into your threadbare tent on the midway. Notice that the plan for this (now) international poetry carnivalesque is entirely predicated on enticing the poetically clueless and indifferent: "audience attention starts to wander at 6 minutes." But surely if the audience is mounting in restive revolt -- silent or otherwise -- at that (no doubt) scientifically replicated 6 minute mark (how can some people survive the boredom of time's egg-boiling and bowel-voiding?), why not up the ante and have the ostentatious hook hanging from the outset, using it as a side-splitting (audience and performer) ambuscade after the first passage with no punch line or sentimental catch at minute one?

Yes, at the back of the blog, I know: it's entertainment, a light-hearted escape, a one-off confection. But it's still selling poetry, isn't it? And worse, the underlying assumption is that poetry needs this to survive as a communal event.

I mentioned that this was a cultural lie. The link at the outset was only the most splashy I could find as a representative for this shift, but many other sources, on-line and off- , ape the same conclusion. Poetry is good for you but insufferable in its live limitations. Therefore, edit, be cool, and above all, drink. I'm all for brevity, irony, and creative quaffing, but (to take these three points in order) why is something so important to the people reading and listening also so puny as to be rendered soporific after 6 (or 16) minutes; why is seriousness uncool or annoying; and why is the experience so painful that it can only be conducted in an altered state? (I'd thought poetry was the essential altered state of the reading -- I can drink at home, but I can't hear and see a poet reading there most nights.)

But the voice persists. "But most readings are boring!" So the answer is then to ridicule the notion of putting them on altogether? The organizer-founder in the linked article says that one in three performers in the bad ole boring days would be "race-to-the-bookstore excellent". If that were true of every reading I'd been to, and if I knew that to be a fact of all future readings, I would have been and will be excited.

There's actually nothing at all wrong with sitting through ten or twenty minutes of indifferent verse voicings in order to get to the surprise of that blowing-one-away third reader. That's life. I happily listen to long symphonies, watch two hour movies, and spend ten or fifteen hours reading novels that have (sometimes) long stretches of waste and turgidity. But unless your way is the greatest hits package -- IPods further changing our neurotransmitters and psychology -- it won't kill the audience patron to endure (gack!) a run of bad verse, or good verse badly delivered.

If the 6 minute rule became standard -- (the fifteen minute rule seems to be the norm already) -- I would have never experienced three of the most transformative poetry readings of my life, those given by George Faludy, Irving Layton, and Len Gasparini. All were one to one-and-a-half hours long, and involved only shortish intros and, in Layton's case only, a short Q and A post-reading.

If a poet is good, I want him or her to be on that stage for a long time because .... well, it's enjoyable, and when enjoying anything, I (and, yes, we) happily lose track of time. And if the audience isn't expecting pies in faces of readers or Little Bo Peep's curved arm in the shadows, the poets usually don't mind spending the extra time with their listeners, as well. And if they do mind, they shouldn't be reading at all.

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