What is wrong with poetry readings these days?
I’m effing mad. I want you to know that right from the get-go, this is a rant. As such, it will ideally be unpolished, which will symbolize the emotional foundation supporting the words that end up on this here web page, and further, you might glean its genuine-ness from that as well. Because I’m pissed. Now I’m always one for self-psychologizing, so I’ll just admit up front as well that I realize what’s underneath that anger is really sadness, disappointment, maybe a dash of bitterness too. So what is all this about then? Readings. Creative types. The art world, the literary world, the worlds some of us still have to participate in, unless of course I’m wrong and just a bit of a masochist.
Cut to the chase here. Last Thursday night I went to a reading. It was a typical shindig — mostly people in their twenties, took place in a warehouse right next to the river and the train tracks. A place where many artists (mostly visual) have collectivized and pooled resources and found a community environment for their studios. None of the walls go up more than seven feet tall, so it’s like an interior artist shanty town, so to speak. Maybe 25 studios inside, and concrete floors, some community spaces, including a hallway right down the middle. There was art hung on those hallway walls, one side featured work from a photographer and the other a friend of mine who makes paintings. Chairs were set up in the middle, maybe eight rows of 5-6 chairs each. At the head, facing the entrance and in front of all the rows of chairs was a mic and a couple of PA speakers, as well as a PA rig set up to project the poets’ voices. All normal to the eye.
Now I don’t want to shit on everything and everyone there, just the ones with stink on their pants already. Here’s my beef. What the eff is wrong with young people socializing these days? Everyone seems so g.d. scared and all turtle-shelled, yet they’re out socializing. Some people were nice, to be sure, and I’d like to re-hug those people and excuse my embarrassing anger here. I am just so very beyond being over the quaint sort of awkwardness, the mock-shyness, the weird Bambi aesthetic that hangs over the art and poetry scenes in most cities like a black cloud of insecurity.
Am I insecure? Who isn’t on some level. Get over it. Christ. I think if you want to write, that’s wonderful. Everyone should write if they feel the urge. And paint, let me say that too — if you feel it, find a place to make a beautiful mess, and go make it. It’s fair game for everyone who wants to set up a flag, stick it in the ground, and claim some territory within which to make stuff. But if you cross the line and publish, or set up a reading for yourself, do anything PUBLIC wherein you enter into a tacit contract with others in a shared space, then you have responsibilities.
You don’t get to be an insecure ninny. It doesn’t serve your community and it isn’t cute, for lack of a better word. I see this all the time. People have the balls to get up and read in front of thirty-five people, and then you go and compliment them afterwards, maybe you’re a stranger with no more of an agenda than to say — “Hey, we’re both members of this unspoken community, I know it isn’t easy to write and then get up and read to a bunch of strangers, but you did a great job, and I support what you’ve just done” — and all of a sudden, it’s like they’ve never been let out in public before that very night, and they used up all their courage to read their four poems and to receive their bit of clap-worthy praise. I don’t get it. And I sort of don’t want to get it, so I probably never will.
Maybe this is because I haven’t lapsed over into the academic side of things, but I’ve been there before, and it’s got its own brand of social awkwardness, so maybe that’s just these people-types all “grown up.” I’m in my mid-thirties, so maybe I’ve just outgrown some of my more obvious social insecurities, but does that mean then that in looking at my creative peers in their twenties, with whom I am sharing venues for writing both on the page and in public, that they deserve to be excused for not learning how to build community? For not being even remotely available to engage socially and learn about each other? Sometimes I think this is about humility. One needs to understand how to be humble first, before knowing how to appreciate someone else. Maybe the other side of the coin of insecurity is a weird kind of mock-arrogance. You don’t notice others, your insecurity has imploded on itself, creating a kind of black hole blankness that only has energy directed inward at yourself, so there isn’t much of you that’s available to put out in the world to be engaged with and by others. Maybe that’s it? Maybe I do want to try to understand it after all. Maybe it’s so upsetting that I will always wonder what the heck is going on. I left with such a foul taste in my mouth on Thursday night, I am still thinking about it. My mildly obsessive nature doesn’t even excuse my morbid curiosity.
Insecurity exists in the art worlds pretty much the same way that breathing exists for normal types in other social circles, at this point. The art world, and maybe some part of the younger literary world, has become a reservoir for socially awkward types and gestures. Insecurity as a substitute for personality and the warmth that it takes to build community is everywhere. It’s a blanket condition if you do anything creative these days, it would seem. Like every high school nerd found each other and developed their own elitist social club. And nothing reeks of asshole-ness like a person who always found themselves on the outside of the cool school, who then goes on to develop their own inner sanctum of cool, and clearly gets off way too hard on letting everyone know exactly who is on the inside, and more importantly, who is not.
My point? If you’re going to have a public face to your career, think about others in your social circles. Cultivate their acceptance and humble yourselves just long enough to be open to engaging with those around you. There is this perception that it’s every person for themselves, that if you can just find an elder creative type whose agenda aligns perfectly with your own, then you might have a shot. And that is one way to jettison the masses and find yourself thrust headlong into a successful creative career. Isn’t that what the MFA is essentially all about? But maybe if all you’re really after is recognition and the spoils of the chase, then you should instead consider being a lawyer. They’ll still let you write and recite, if that’s what you’re after. And you won’t, God forbid, have to socialize with anyone when you leave the courtroom.