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A collaboration over too much coffee.
coffee and pen

06 March, 2008

Poetry audiences - a discussion [Part 4]

Peter Griffin:

Dear Priya

It was no hardship for me; it was a privilege to be asked to share the stage with so many talented folks, even more so for me since I wasn't one of the poets in the anthology. But yes, I was expecting more folks from the Caferati group, and was disappointed that only one of the folks who said they might come eventually did make it.

I thought there would be more folks from PEN's list present too. But the low numbers were not exactly unexpected. I haven't been to many PEN events, but at the ones I have attended, I was surprised to see so few folks. At the first PEN event I went to, at Ranjit's invitation, there were five readers, including myself, and five - or was it six? - listeners.

Part of this is, I think, to do with the combination of timing and location, something I have discussed with Ranjit. Events that start at 6.15 in the evening, mid-week, in South Bombay and that last, usually, under an hour ; that's very unrealistic and just does not take into consideration the realities of Bombay. Working folks are usually in their office until 6 p.m. Many work later as a matter of course. The city's business district is no longer Nairman Point and Fort. Increasingly larger sections of people work in the former mills district around Dadar, Parel, and Prabhadevi, in Bandra and the Bandra-Kurla complex and Ghatkopar and Andheri and suburbs further North and East, even in places like New Bombay and Malad. Getting to a reading by 6.15 would mean having to take off from work early, not always easy to do, and definitely not an option on a regular basis.

(Digression: With Caferati, one of my learnings was that once a month, on a Saturday or a Sunday afternoon or evening, is a fairly achievable goal. Not, perhaps, wholly relevant, since the scenarios are not the same, but it does take into consideration that folks have full, busy lives and expecting them to devote larger, more frequent chunks of time would be difficult. Also, Caferati is also an online organisation, and the read-meets are not, therefore, the sole gatherings of the group.)


Perhaps a later start time. And I would definitely say not a weekday. That said, this won't guarantee larger audiences, but it certainly makes it easier to attend. I don't work fullt-time now, but, thinking back, I would have find it very doable to get to a short event at around 7 p.m. or a little later.

Definitely more audience building. More awareness generation. More education. (I remember someone saying at a poetry event that the way our education system brings poetry to us is bad. But then, if we agree, what are we doing to help people rise beyond that?

PEN is working on it, especially with the new Poetry@PEN series. Open Space has made a wealth of work available on the Talking Poetry pages. (Why not more discussion? How about, for a start, including notes on why you selected the poems that are on the site? Why not have the poets write about the genesis of the works featured?) Caferati is trying to bring more writers into the fray. We need more efforts, and we need to work harder ourselves. Be the change, as the catchphrase goes.

Your specific questions

Is the online community of poets/ poetry lovers 'self-sufficient' in the sense that such readings/launches are no longer required by blog tribalism?

I'm going to have to be long-winded.

The online community of poets and poetry lovers is growing.

Part of this is because the nature of the online space permits participation and interaction that overcomes barriers of distance and time. Add to this the fact that the community is not exactly thick on the ground, and such folks as there are are scattered across the world, larger concentrations in arts-friendly cities and the like, but more usually, people are not aware of how to get in touch with, join, participate in real-life groups, or there are none in their vicinity. When such folks find an online community, this can be huge. I know this was the case for me, and others have told me much the same.

Does this mean that these communities are self-sufficient? If so, is that a good or a bad thing?

I think that yes, they can be self-sufficient. For many, it is enough to just write and have maybe a few dozen people read. It is enough for them to have an audience, period. Here, they're getting one that is potentially international; at any rate, more than the number they would physically be able to show their work to otherwise, something that was impossible when getting your poems published in a magazine or a book was the only way to rise beyond constraints of geography or time.

"Publishing" means something very different these days and that's the reality. Many don't aim to be published in the conventional sense, way too many don't work on their craft, or read enough or analyse enough or learn enough. Is that the fault of the medium? Perhaps. I don't think so, but perhaps. But then, perhaps, because the technology makes it easy, more people will write, will show their work around. I like that. And I think it's worth it. Perhaps, out of this much wider community, a few poets who may never have been heard if not for the technology will now rise to greater visibility. I like that too. And it's definitely worth it.

We should also consider these things.
- It is a fast-moving world, and information overload is very real.
- Attention spans are dropping, and there is so much more competition for those diminishing slices of attention. Films, news, opinions, everything's getting shorter, more concise, in an attempt to fit in. (And, y'know, there is more opportunity there. Good poets manage to fit things into beautifully carved nutshells.)
- Technology has helped democratise many things. Experts, mediators, the media, they become irrelevant for some people. The wisdom of crowds does work, and it the mob is powerful and fickle. Fifteen minutes, fifteen seconds even, of fame? That's not the future; it's already happening.
- Poets need to compete for attention the same as anyone else. They need to compete with films, books, news, reality TV, the latest web phenom.

And also some things to think about.
Why is it that a poetry-loving community--specifically, English poetry, because there are far larger turnouts for poetry events in other Indian languages--is difficult to find in the real world in this country? Why are the better-known poets not able to grow audiences? Why aren't they embracing the technology that's available? Things like podcasts, posting poetry online, writing about poetry, about the appreciation and understanding of poetry, for instance. If the media won't carry such writing, why not put it out there anyway, for the good of the craft, the calling?

I can understand none of the C group attending if they trash the work of all the poets reading. This is perfectly acceptable. But do they know the work of these poets well enough to trash it all? Or are the reasons darker and smaller? I'm speaking both of hiding in the paltry 'I-me-myself" syndrome of closure and safety by not attending, and the fear of nails being worn down by slog that's on display on such an occasion. I'm also speaking of perhaps not loving, passionately, intensely enough , the art that makes one be-- which is necessary to commit to in order to improve and seek. These are deep and troubling questions.

Possibility one: people did not attend because they didn't like the work of the people reading. Let us also assume that they do know the work well enough to reach that conclusions, and that, you accept, is good enough reason. Fair enough.

Possibility two, they do not know the work well, but do not think highly of the work they have come across, and therefore do not attend. I think that this perfectly acceptable too. If I don't like what I have seen or heard once or twice, why would I want to delve deeper? It's up to the poet to interest me, grab me, make me want to come back, or read more.

Possibility three, they have not heard of the work of these poets at all and therefore do not attend. Nothing wrong with that either. We, as people who believe that the work of certain poets is special, should do more to publicise it, sell it, make it easy to relate to, make sure the people that it speaks to hear about it, and convince people to attend, to read them.

Possibility Four, they have heard of and like the work of the poets featured but still do not attend. There could be a variety of reasons for this, like the day of the week and the time and the location and not having heard about it in time, or not having been told about it in a convincing way. It could mean that some people think poetry is best read off a page with the voice of one's mind rather than heard in voice of the poet (and let us also note that not all poets read well). It does not necessarily follow that the reasons are "darker and smaller." It does not necessarily follow that anyone is hiding, or scared of seeing slog on display or not loving the art well enough. Those are unkind assumptions. Because it is possible to work hard at poetry, care passionately about it, without attending a single reading. If it is possible to love Shakespeare who's been dead for centuries, why can't one experience, love, study a contemporary without ever seeing that contemporary read her/his own work?

I ask also because through discussions that occurred later I was enlightened to the fact that most of the recent readings in Bombay ( except those announced as events with, possibly, cocktails through in) are very poorly attended.

No one invites me to the cocktails, alas. So I can't comment.

If it is imperative that in order to attend, the platform must extend to permit one to read from one's work, no matter how recent a 'poet' one is,

Why do you assume this? Unfair, i think.

..then we must rethink the very idea of launches and readings. We must, indeed, rethink the very idea of listening and sharing and growing. We must, by extension, dismiss words like rigour, experiment, form and love from our vocabulary and substitute these perhaps with words like laziness and anything goes or ... We should stop believing that poetry is a sacred and necessary impulse that enables one to live.

Yes, we must re-examine the idea of launches and readings. We must make them more attractive to people. We must remember that we're competing for people's attention and that they have many alternatives to choose from. Even if we were to restrict ourselves to what else is available in poetry, if one had the choice between looking at a few videos which feature Billy Collins reading his work while the visual interprets those words with some great animation, or checking out some great spoken word performers on YouTube, would I come listen to Peter Griffin sit in a chair and read a poem? Rather than dismiss rigour, experiment, form and love, we should, in this re-examination, work harder, experiment more, love it more.


[Priya Chabria's original mail, Annie Zaidi's reply, a short reply from Priya C, in which your correspondent drones on and on and on., Sampurna Chattarji's take, some more thoughts from Annie, Vivek Narayanan's view.]

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