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Swallowing Lightbulbs and Redoing Church: A Beat on Readings

A few of my favorite readings were ones I never saw. Like Ted Berrigan in 1982 at Naropa in Boulder, CO, where I’ve never seen any readings, but I did eat a green chile omelet in a hailstorm. In 1982, Berrigan read “Red Shift,” and you can listen to him read it at PennSound. “Spirit who lives only to nag,” he says. He is only pronouns, but he is all of them. In his voice, none of the confidence of someone accustomed to licking a stage. Instead, Berrigan sounds like a nervous bank robber. Only the one set of eyes to make sure nobody’s pressing any red buttons. The trembling, the deliberate haggling with the breath’s center, the fearless/terrified recounting of every terrified/fearless choice in the text, the teeth involvement. My beat for Real Pants is to dig out what makes for a good reading. The potentials and pitfalls. Here’s my first tip: involve your teeth.

Other great readers I have been lucky enough to see: Kate Greenstreet—squinting and willing to sit with any small mystery until it turns huge. Mark Leidner—everyone shitting themselves with laughter, and meanwhile Leidner’s pan so dead that NASA is studying it and coming up with weirdly high readings of sorrow. Abe Smith—that boot heel, that warble.

One night in Northampton we sat around trying to figure out what exactly made Laura Solomon’s reading so good, and we couldn’t, which is a big part of what made it so good. Other times you punch your friend in the arm because they sit there right in front of you and read such a good goddamn poem. Or story. Or whatever else that wakes up firmly convinced it’s page-bound and we elect to rattle through our jaws anyway. A lot of times we don’t need to hear or see anything, and that’s a politics of grace too.

It used to be my friend had to get boisterously drunk to read his delicate poems, and then finally he didn’t, and someone fainted during his reading, and he didn’t know what to do, so he kept reading. Was this a problem? I dunno, what kind of church do you smoke outside of. Nobody will ever figure readings out completely. People will keep painting their faces, yukking puppets, hatching gimmicks, looping in the audience, staring without looking up, staring at a single person they do or don’t love correctly, thanking too many people, announcing “two more poems,” asking if people can hear them in the back (if poetry’s for anyone, it’s for the people in the back), making in-jokes to flatter their hosts, crinkling hella awkwardly when it comes to pitching their bookthing, laughing at their own joke, revising a poem mid-reading, bombing, soaring, breaking, boring, and so on.

What even is a reading? One popular opinion is that many poetry readings are boring. There is a weird discrepancy between what poets do well and who they tend to be as people (shy, inward, reserved) and what the reading environment seems at first blush to demand of them (performance). Is the poet making a z-sweep of the room’s eyes like you learn in Public Speaking? Uh, excuse me, what if my poem is trying to make us all forget we have those kinds of eyes? Should I memorize my poem? Probably somewhere in your body you should, yeah. One thing I’m going to do in this beat is talk about some ways I’ve seen good readings done.

But poetry isn’t public speaking, is it? It’s private speaking. Why should poetry ape a rock concert when it can redo church? Turn all the lights and amps off is how I feel sometimes. Other times I’m like: church? I hate church. Sway and bellow. Let’s get Ben Hersey up here to swallow a lightbulb. That changed every reading. Or one time there was a thunderstorm outside between every other line Jane Lewty read. That changed every reading. Other times, it’s a siren. If you’re a poet, you don’t have to always be the siren yourself. Maybe it’s good to hear what’s already out there, you know? All you have to do with your reading is change every reading. One way I think of it is this: if you need poetry, you’ll find it. Nobody yells at bowling for not being basketball. One thing I’m going to do in this beat is talk about some good readers.

But speaking of finding, what about listening? Why don’t we ever talk about how to be a good audience member? What I endorse in both reading and listening to poetry is rigorous laziness. Listeners and readers would do well to follow along as I steal a whole paragraph from a 1988 essay by Frederick Barthelme:

See, there are ideas and ideas. The first are the kind you can plug into in a sentence suitable for a 30-second slot with Ted Koppel; the second kind are more difficult to handle—they’ve got no clear lines, no digest versions, they wander around and poke into things, they suggest and hint at and gesture toward experience, and generally elude classification, which makes them hard to talk about. Somebody is an artist not because he or she thinks something, but because he or she does something—makes the art. In doing that, ideas sometimes show up in unfamiliar, even obscure, configurations.

I barely remember who Ted Koppel is anymore, but I would be happy to hear his name come up in a poem. I would be happy to hike through that occurrence for a second. Good audiences, I think, don’t sit there waiting for a narration of the main quest in Grand Theft Auto. They’re game to follow the side-quest trail. You roll and let things stick. You get rigorously loose, rigorously lazy. One of the best compliments I ever got from a listener is “I stopped listening three-fourths of the way through, but I thought about so many interesting things.” One of the worst things that ever happened to me was I hosted a reading and somebody who thought they were funny kept trying to “heckle.” They were not funny. Heckling, it seemed, was something they read about on the side of their toothpaste box. Thankfully, they left, off I guess to go care only about themselves somewhere else. One thing I’m going to do in this beat is interview some people who are good at giving readings and some people who are good at being in audiences.

Finally (but sort of firstly) there is the question of space. Sure, sometimes there’s a beautiful piano that Bob Dylan might’ve played and a woodfired sauna. Other times there are beautiful go-karts for chairs. But sometimes there’s a couch on a roof. Or a zoo. An elevator. An El Train. Of course bookstores—amen amen amen. A God’s-gurgle number of bars. If there’s a projector, it won’t work, OK? Give it a hug. Tell it that you understand, that you wouldn’t work either if you’d seen what it had seen. There are—let’s see—backyards, classrooms, potlucks, parks, punk houses, record stores, converted firehouses, amphitheaters, and benches overlooking the shore. If one gets the sense that there is maybe no wrong place to have a reading, I would subtract a practical respect for the limits of the human body (temperatures, smells, gravity) from that sentiment and say yeah. One is right. One thing I’m going to do in this beat is highlight some of the best reading series out there.

Who will give the first poetry reading on Mars? It’s not a question I’m worried about. What I want to do is envision an independent literary culture that is like a house party anyone can find and feel comfortable/safe/excited to hang out in. Readings are a key part of that, which is why it’s important to unpack their kinks: giving them, throwing them, attending them. As Blaster Al Ackerman says, “I think of strands of seaweed all over the listener.” Hello out there, poetry lovers. Let’s figure out this reading thing.

Mike Young

Mike Young is the author of three books: Sprezzatura (2014, poems), Look! Look! Feathers (2010, stories), and We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough (2010, poems). He publishes the free online/print literary magazine NOÖ Journal, runs Magic Helicopter Press, and lives online at http://mikeayoung.tumblr.com. In person, he lives in Santa Fe, NM.

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About The Author

Mike Young

Mike Young is the author of three books: Sprezzatura (2014, poems), Look! Look! Feathers (2010, stories), and We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough (2010, poems). He publishes the free online/print literary magazine NOÖ Journal, runs Magic Helicopter Press, and lives online at http://mikeayoung.tumblr.com. In person, he lives in Santa Fe, NM.

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