November 12, 2009

Rainy Day Woman

I have really been enjoying Melissa Friedling's series of "video posts" over at the Harriet blog. But they don't generating much of a comment dialogue, and I worry that means they'll be construed as having failed. Why the radio silence?

Maybe poets are finding the answers (to the question "What is poetry?") a bit banal. A few excerpts:

Tomas (in translation): "Poetry is an elegant way of defining things like love, a flower, a landscape. It's the language use by people that, you could say, have very deep thoughts."

Joe (a sidewalk artist): "Poetry, to me, is an observation of life that exponentially reinforces the magic of life."

Sarah (from Louisiana): "It's raw emotion. It can be a lot of rambling words thrown together that a lot of people don't understand, but it's art."

Nirali (a classical Indian dancer): "I really like poetry, but I don't know much about it."

Not exactly an in-depth critique of Oulipo; there aren't even many poets cited by name. Nothing worth picking a fight over, which seems to be the underlying motive of so many Harriet commenters.

It's a very human drive to surround oneself with kindred spirits, and in this internet age it's possible to maintain a constant chit-chat in poet mode. Your junkfood reading can consist entirely of poetry blogs. You can make a joke about villanelles in your Facebook status, and eight people will joke right back at you. With this kind of saturating access to fellow artists, the grandmother or boss or neighbor who doesn't "get" poetry becomes the outlier figure in our minds, the exception to an otherwise dominant community of readers and writers.

But the reality is that your grandmother, boss, and neighbor are the majority. The people in these videos? They're the people I'm trying to win over. As much as I love the congratulatory note from a poet I admire, it's the email from the systems engineer in San Diego that really gets to me.

In the last month I have read poems to a class full of bored art students, a group of ladies who lunch, and a packed room at the Mexican Cultural Institute (for some of whom English was a second language). Each time I encountered people like the ones in these videos. People open to poetry, but not engaged by its crafts. People who say "I like it, but I usually don't get it." Or just "I usually don't like it."

Each time I go in knowing that subtleties will be lost in translation (whether literal or cultural). So I provide a generous narrative context beforehand. I revise on the fly, repeating identifying nouns and pronouns that I'd cut from the written page. I exaggerate my delivery, placing a hand to my chest when the metaphor is one of a heart.

Are these compromises a form of pandering? Maybe, but they work. What's the alternative? Maybe the audience on display in Melissa Friedlander's videos is a readership that 9/10 Harriet commenters are uninterested in reaching. But that's a damn shame.


Though I am hoping to get nonfiction work done today, at 5 PM I'll be breaking away to head downtown for a light dinner at Sonoma before the Library of Congress reading with Lucia Perillo and Tony Hoagland. Perillo is great--I heard her read the year she won the Kingsley Tufts Award. Her humor is a bit on the dark side; yours would be too, if you'd gone from life as a park ranger in the Cascade Mountains to being confined to a wheelchair by MS. That said, I'd hide behind her in a knife fight. The woman is fierce. I've never heard Hoagland read. My expectations of his demeanor are entirely based on this author photo to the right, which was taken by Dorothy Alexander.

There's only one more enviable event on my radar, and it's this one with Daniel Nester, Stephen Elliott, and Nick Flynn. If I could make the 8-hour drive up north, I would. So much gorgeous cynicism in one room! A girl could swoon. When I spent my month at the Millay Colony, The Spotty Dog in Hudson was one of my favorite places to seek civilization (a.k.a., graphic novels and porters on draft).

Luckily, I'll have the celebration of the 120th anniversary of Poet Lore to keep me busy here in town on Saturday night. This reading--featuring Myra Sklarew, Gary Fincke, and John Balaban--will take place (fancy setting alert) at the Historical Society of Washington, complete with a champagne toast to follow. Get the details and RSVP here. It's a free event, open to all.

Someone once asked me how many readings I go to each month. Unless I'm traveling or on deadline, I try to go to at least one a week, and two when I can. This is what happens when you are nearing 30 without kids. Or pets. I have a peace lily that droops when it isn't watered by 7 PM, but that's it.


Mighty Mike said...

Enjoyed the read. :)

Stephen Elliott said...

It won't be as good
without Daniel and Nick but
I'm reading at Teaism November 20