Sunday, August 06, 2006

Background Noise #10

Artist/Album: The Mars Volta/De-loused in the Comatorium
Drink: Guinness Extra Stout

I'm not sure if anyone noticed, or even cared, but I didn't post an installment of Background Noise last week. I had been so busy working on the new website for The Guerilla Poetics Project that I didn't have time to organize my thoughts enough to write a full column. Sorry, if you missed it. If not, then we're all good.

But, I'm back this week to discuss something that is at the heart of poetry: the act of reading it aloud to a group of people.

Poetry began as an oral art. It was recited as a form of entertainment, and a method of history. Oral histories are common among all peoples, and most have developed a form, however rudimentary it may be, of poetry out of this oral history. Sometime, a few centuries ago, poetry suddenly became less about disseminating the histories or traditions of a people and more about describing the current world around us. Poetry moved from the oral to the written. But, even then, it was still read aloud. The meter and flow and rhythm of early poetry practically begged for oral treatments.

Then, free verse came along. Printing became cheaper and poetry became less about rhythm and meter. It was intended to be read and mulled over; devoured and contemplated. Still, poetry readings were important and popular. Ginsberg's Howl is an examples of a free verse poem meant for being studied, yet all the more powerful when HEARD as opposed to being READ.

Then, the last incarnation, was the slam poetry movement. It merged the rhythm and meter of the old poets, and the shocking content and realism of the new poets. To some, it was less poetry and more lyrics to a song with no music. To others, it was the pinnacle of poetic expression. I feel the truth lies somewhere between.

But, what of the rest of us? What of those who write contemporary free verse poems? Sure, they're lyrical and full of imagery. Sure, some are humorous or absurd. But, what is the point of reading them to a crowd? I don't know. I suppose the answer lies in WHY you are reading aloud (or want to) your poems. If you're reading to help sales of your latest book, then the reading is akin to a novelist reading passages from her latest novel; it's a marketing ploy. But, if you're reading because you want to sharpen your oratory skills, it is a lesson. Still, if you're reading because you feel you have something to say and want your voice to be heard, then the reading is a form of art in itself.

I will admit right now, that I've never actually read my poems. But, I have attended a number of poetry readings (open-mic style, slam style and marketing style). The open-mic poetry reading is probably the most accessible for the struggling, unknown poet who wants to give it a whirl. However, my experience has shown me that open-mic poetry readings are the WORST place for the struggling, unknown poet who wants to give it a whirl.

Why?

Because open-mic poetry readings are full of people who want to read their poems, and their friends who're there for support. There are very few (if any) "audience" members. And, the worst thing a poet can encounter is a room full of people who feel they are better – who are only interesting in WHEN they get to go on – and their friends and family, who are only interested in hearing what THEIR poet has to say. It's a dead room.

But, I'm sure these readings will help out those who are looking for experience in reading before a crowd, or looking to sharpen their oratory skills. But, if you're looking to connect to another human being on a fundamental way, then you best move on.

And as for marketing, I would really like to see what the numbers are for a struggling, unknown poet selling his/her chapbooks at a poetry reading. I would be very surprised if more even two books are sold on average. A one book average would shock me.

Remember this: If you're a struggling, unknown poet looking for an audience and having trouble finding one in print, I can guarantee you that you will not find one by reading your poems at an open-mic night. If you cannot gain an audience in print, you will not gain one at a reading. But, if you've already somewhat established yourself (after all, what exactly IS established?) and if you're having success in publishing your poems then it might be a good idea to give a poetry reading a try. Maybe you'll fail, but maybe you won't. And maybe, just maybe you can sell one more book. And, in the end, isn't that what we do all of this for anyway?

Lastly, I want to leave you with a poem I wrote after attending (but not reading at) a local open-mic poetry reading. The audience was full of the above-mentioned poets and family. At one point, in the middle of a poor poet's reading, an asshole received a phone call on his cellphone and answered it, talking loudly. THIS is the sort of shit you will undoubtedly put up with. Arrogance, rudeness, boredom and an inattentive audience. Anyway, the poem:


open-mic poetry night

halfway into the night,
and in the middle of
a poem i was reading,
this guy sitting up front
got a call on his cell phone.

he answered it and
proceeded to have a rather
heated conversation
with the caller.

at first this pissed me off,
but i soon realized that
what this guy was
saying was ten times more
entertaining and
vastly more poetic
than the shit i was
spewing, so i stopped reading.
in the middle
of a particularly dull
stanza and held the
microphone up to the cell phone.

the guy continued talking
and the crowd suddenly
became riveted.

he kept on talking
loudly, making erratic gestures,
using bold language;
and i kept on holding the
microphone to him.

when he was finished the
crowd erupted and i
gallantly walked out from
under the spotlight into
the windstorm of applause.

it was my best
performance ever.

9 Comments:

Blogger christopher cunningham said...

good post, j.b.

I too have never read anything publicly, and have no real desire to do so. I am a print poet in the traditional sense, preferring to see the poem on paper, in print. and I think that most readings are done solely for the poetic ego, in that you are not gonna sell shit at a reading, or anywhere else, for that matter. a book of poems is a hard sell unless the folks are already interested in your work in some fashion. and that means doing the work for subs, etc.

I also have a general problem with slam poetry in that it usually won't hold up on the page, as the work isn't about the POEM but the PERFORMANCE. not always, but mostly.

but, whatever. a reading would have to be a very impressive lineup for me to attend, and I've NO DESIRE AT ALL to hear bad poetry read by desperate people, so that leaves me out.

hell, I've enough bad poetry here at the compound to keep me busy for a lifetime, if I want some crap to kick around.

nice work. and maybe tomorrow/later tonight I can actually free my mind from the GUERILLA THAT IS EATING MY LIFE for a moment to get down a post about THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA by Tennessee Williams, via the John Huston film. that movie was GREAT and the symbolism of the outcast-saint and the selfish/selfless themes are stirring and very intriguing.

here's hoping..

*tilts glass, wonders...*

7:13 PM  
Blogger christopher cunningham said...

not that the HUNGRY GUERILLA doesn't merit my time, mind you. that project is an example of IGUANA's theme of making a selfless sacrifice for the greater good of someone else ("the art of poetry") that will come back around the pike to greet you as SELFISH REWARD unsought.

example: we work hard on GPP. give up time and money. selfless.
but selfish also in that we hope someday to BENEFIT DIRECTLY from our selfless act.

interesting. one must give up themselves (sacrifice) and suffer (loss of time/energy/etc.) (or more real pain, on occasion) for something or someone NOT THEM in order to experience the same IN REVERSE (a benefit FROM someone else's similar sacrifce...)

but...more later...

7:18 PM  
Blogger Karl Koweski said...

I've read at a few, one at a poetry reading put together by Staplegun Scott and another where I read a few stories. I sold a number of chapbooks at both events. The Literary Circus where I read the stories was really great. There were only four of us and the people at the coffee house were there for some entertainment and we all had a great drunken time. The poetry reading was held at an art gallery, though, and was pretty goddam pretentious. Guys wearing black berets... that sort of thing. I wouldn't dismiss them out of hand, but it's definitely a mixed bag. I like it when dowdy women read sexy poems. I'm all over that.

8:29 PM  
Blogger Partisanpoet said...

Last night we at Partisan Press had our annual Hiroshima Nagasaki Memeorial poetry gathering. It's the first time I've read publicly in a while and it was a good experience with a responsive audience. In this case poetry served it's ancient purpose. The sharing of that deeper communication strengthened community. Reading can be a powerful and moving experience conveying much emotion. Both the poetry and the comraderie of the people was spiritual nourishment in these dismal and nightmarish times.

I agree with Chris on Slams. I think the purpose of the reading makes all the difference. Are people coming together to share their work or are they coming to perform? Are they looking for criticism, accolades, or communication and connection? Context is everything. In the context of people coming together to share their "stories" and gut feelings, poetry connects with it's roots and feeds us. The opposite may be true when poetry seeks to be competitive or entertaining. This is a poem I wrote about 10 years ago:

Volgaire Poetry Slam
Cabaret Voltaire, Norfolk, 1997

Sitting in the dark
hoping for poetry
young men take their turns
at party animal posturing
recalling their sexual exploits
vulgarity replacing metaphor
hot whore pussies and
throbbing angst penises
fill the night air
a litany of competitive overdrinking
puking on sidewalks
smoking cigarettes doing dope sex as a weapon
degrading misogyny nihilism cynicism
neo-beat posing
youthful attempts at worldliness
spurt out like casual sperm
on a despised backroom stranger.

I sit unimpressed
like a fisherman dissatisfied
by my catch
I want to hear the song of the soul unleashed
I want metaphors like butterflies
dancing through hot night air
I want to feel the friction
of social repression
on personal lives
I want depth anger passion thought insight
I want inspiration
But on this night
only the pubescent macho posturing
of circle jerk poetry
is heard.

7:09 AM  
Blogger c. allen rearick said...

partisanpoet - kudos on the "annual Hiroshima Nagasaki Memeorial poetry gathering" i was just discussing with a friend, how i've heard no news or no one even mention the anniv. of these events, which always reminds me of hitler's quote - "history is only as old as your grandfather."

on another note. i've read a few times and have a few readings lined up. for me, for the most part, they are always a fun drunken time, i guess it all comes down to whether or not you're familiar with the other poets or it depends on who is involved in the setting up of the event.

j.b- i don't know if i wholly agree with the "not makin' it in print/open mic reading" don't get me wrong you make some fine points. but i think the maj. or "open mic" poets are there for the simple reason that they have no clue/direction on how to get into print, and vice versa for the listeners (no clue about where to find journals - online or not)is this bad? maybe, 'cause for a bunch of listeners who really don't know much aboot poetry, they are gonna hear a bunch of bad "open mic" poets read, and think, 'this is poetry', so maybe more "small press" poets should get their asses out there and read, change the view, (ya' know, bein' selfless) much like we are attemptin' to do with the gpp. o.k. my rant is done. i'm not gonna go over and reread it. hell, i'm not even sure if i made any sence. screw you hippies.

12:10 PM  
Blogger H. said...

The few readings I've seen (I have long refused to read) have reminded me too much of the workshop poetry class in college. I was in class with a guy who wrote a poem about unscrewing his cock & discarding it, because it MADE him do things like lust after women or yell at his mom or something. Now, he didn't, of course, have ANY INTEREST WHATSOEVER in getting rid of his junk--he could chop it right off if he really wanted to...No, instead, he was trying to con all the girls in the class into thinking he was a sensitive, gentle kind of dude they could trust...so he could, you know, fuck them with his righteously screwed-on cock. It was a lie, a sham. Years later, & against my better judgement I had agreed to do a series of 2 POETRY READINGS at tiny colleges Japan. I agonized over the decision, regretted it the second I agreed. But, having commited to it, I knew I would have no choice but to honor that commitment. So I dreamed up an approach that made it okay: I wasn't going to read MY POEMS. Instead I was going to read MY FAVORITE POEMS, the best ones I could find. I had assembled an impressive line-up of my favorites: Buk, Yeats, Whitman, Cunningham, & Berriozabal & was going to read that instead. Fantasitcally, it fell apart & I, instead, just got wrecked on sake, Jinro So-chu & sushi. The bringing of poetry to new eyes & ears can't be bad. But it's rarely good. Included in one of my first chaps was a CD of me reading, into a mic, in an empty room , while I drank Scotch. That--to me, was as good as a reading can get. Words & darkness...with no face attached to like or hate.

3:32 PM  
Blogger Luis said...

I don't read in public. However, with the one exception, at Luis Omar Salinas' birthday party, because he asked me to read and he was one of the poets that made me believe in poetry. Good post, Justin.

7:52 PM  
Blogger christopher cunningham said...

CAR you make a very valid point: if more "good" poets got out there and read it might just change the paradigm, much like we're trying to do with the GPP. it might be something, after we get rolling, to do some kind of group reading, (with enough BIG promotion wherever it's to be held, etc..), if the response is there to the broadsides.

a promotional tour, etc.

although in the end, I agree most with McCreesh. fuck that ego shit. but I still haven't killed my ego, so let's do whatever we need to do to make this thing work...

10:15 PM  
Blogger j.b said...

all good points. thanks.

great poem, too PP.

i see your point, Casey, but my thing is how can people NOT know how to go about trying to get published. i don't know. maybe.

i can only speak on the various readings i've attended, and they all have similarities: mainly that the attendees were less into what was being read than what they were about to read.

anyway...

maybe a GPP tour would be cool. hit all the big venues. i'd have to do something about this morbid stage fright i have, but a handful of Xanax and a bottle of wine should clear that up.

2:07 PM  

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