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A collaboration over too much coffee.
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06 March, 2008

Poetry audiences - a discussion [Part 5]

Sampurna Chattarji:

Dear all,

I think Peter and Annie have covered most of the points that impinge on the presence/absence of audiences for poetry events in our respective cities, with practical, sound and sensitive suggestions on how to address some of them. I have just one thing to add, and I’d like to do that in my capacity as a poet and participant rather than as an organiser of such events.

I think the key question for me is – how does one define a ‘successful event’? I have had, in the past two-three years, the pleasure of reading my work at a variety of forums from the posh art gallery (with red wine!) to the noisy premises of a Prithvi café (with no mike!). The dynamics of every event has varied and so has my satisfaction as a poet and a performer (in some sense, even a reading becomes a performance). I find that the number of people in the audience has had a varying influence on the satisfaction I derive from an event. Some of the best events for me were those that were attended by not more than 12 to 15 people, and that allowed the kind of intimacy and intense engagement and interaction that a larger, more-well attended event could not. I have been equally thrilled and dismayed by how many or how few people turned up to listen to me, but always in the process of reading, and engaging with those who did come, I have felt a sense of pleasure and a sense of gratitude. An old-fashioned word, yes, but I think in a world where there is so much else that one could do – watch a movie, go for a play, a concert, stay in and read Proust, go out on the town with old friends, eat sushi, learn salsa – assuming of course, that one has the leisure to do all of this and is not bound by some hideous corporate deadline as most of my friends are, in such a world of teeming options, in cities that are rich enough to offer us all these options – I do feel grateful when someone opts for poetry. And it is not only poetry events that are (sometimes) sparsely attended, and neither is this a problem specific to India. The American playwright Alan Brody who was here in July (he teaches and lives in Boston) said readings are the hardest things to organise as one can never be sure how many people will finally come. (To slip back into organiser mode for a second, I also know how deeply disappointing it is when after doing everything possible to invite/entice a sizeable audience, one fails, and it is the same five or six or seven indefatigable amazingly supportive old regulars who come.)

Which brings me back to the question – how does one define a ‘successful event’? For me, as a poet, the answer is increasingly being defined in terms of the richness of response, the intensity of listening, a quality both unquantifiable and deeply enriching. Numbers, in this situation, are becoming an aside, a functional detail in an experience nuanced with something I can only think of as personal pleasure.

I’m not sure how this addresses some of the other conversations, but I do hope, in some way, it does.
With love,
Sampurna.

[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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