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A collaboration over too much coffee.
coffee and pen

06 March, 2008

Poetry audiences - a discussion [Part 7]

Vivek Narayanan:

Dear Peter et al.,

A few things strike me in thinking about this discussion. The first is, what is the optimal audience for a poetry event, how many people would make us happy and, can we assume that more people is necessarily better? I'm not trying to be elitist; rather I am saying that this need for a mass audience that we have is a particularly modern and contemporary anxiety.

Poetry has always tended to have small audiences. Bob Holman, who was recently in town, was telling us about that about that now legendary reading where Allen Ginsberg first premiered Howl, and the fact that there were maybe twenty or thirty people in the room. Jack Spicer, an American poet who is less known because he shunned official publication and the "poetry career" path in general (he said, rather harshly, that being published in anthologies made him feel like a pimp) says, in an interview that very often there might be only two or three people who really read your work closely, understand and engage with it. Mandelstam had a small but highly devoted band of followers determined to keep his poetry alive. One thinks about how many people Wordsworth or Shelley or Keats had in their audience (I'm not sure if Keats gave readings) or indeed, one thinks about how many people in Ghalib's time didn't just dismiss him as "difficult" or "experimental" or an obscurantist and the only answer one has is: enough people were there to make it memorable.

The fact that other mediums-- fiction and that upstart film-- can now routinely have mass audiences makes poetry aspire to the same. However, because poetry has always been about community to an extent that other mediums are not, this has also meant an almost absurd increase in the number of poets, leading to the situation that Silliman has been talking about for a while now, where there are thousands of competent poets in the US. Priya speaks of the "C" list[1] of incompetent poetasters not coming to readings. Yes, there are many of those in the Indian scene, some have even climb to positions of influence over the years, but we must also now get to asking the question, is "competency" enough, and what will happen when we also start having hundreds and then thousands of poets, all at least a minimum level of competency? That is quite a deadening situation in its own way. Where will we go from there?

I propose we take seriously the shift from "audience" to "community" and think about what it means. This does NOT mean saying that everything is fine and anything goes, for, alas, even if we agree to set all poets as equal, the fact remains that some poems will be better, even vastly better, than others. Some poems will be just good enough and that by itself is not really good enough! What I am saying rather is 1) we ask ourselves why we don't engage more closely and honestly and critically with each other's work and 2) why we don't take care to document events.

1) close engagement: Priya notes how Adil's commentary on Arvind made her day (I wish I was there, I wish I could watch it on Youtube). And yet, how often does this really happen? I've always had the sense that the Bombay Eng. poetry scene is a very social but ultimately fails because it generates no internal critique-- this was less so at different points, notably the early poetry soc. days of the 90s and, perhaps even more so, what I have heard about the Clearing House days of the late sixties and early seventies. What so often happens, however, is that people line up to read one after the other, then there's a general round of back-patting, then everyone goes off to gossip and carefully avoids the actual poetry. In Delhi we have been tackling this by deflecting the issue onto "performance", which I think is an interesting strategy, but eventually it will only take us so far. The fact that we don't get enough serious engagement (and this should include loving but vigorous and *informed* critique and argument, fights and discussions and tips about the poetry we are reading, assuming that all of us are reading a lot, issues where a lot is at stake, and not just weak little suggestions for each other's linebreaks) means that we turn our hopes outward, in a wish for love and affirmation from an imaginary audience that never shows up. Rather, why not turn it around: if we engage with enough intensity and vigour and critique among the people who do show up (even if it's just the readers themselves who show up) then rumours of that true intensity will spread, and others will want to be part of it. And if we really bring enough intensity (I think Sampurna's points are relevant here) to the event, regardless of how many people are there, then I believe the question of audience will become irrelevant.

I have no magic trick in mind for how we will be able to be completely honest about each other's work, and I'm reminded of that episode of Friends where Phoebe (disastrously) decides to "tell the truth" in her songs. But this, for me, is what has to happen *before* the question of a lay audience even comes into the picture.

2) documentation: Priya notes how Adil's commentary on Arvind made her day (I wish I was there, I wish I could watch it on Youtube). Well, why can't I? I sit and watch the Berkeley poetry reading series a couple of days after the event. I would even go check out Peter Griffin sitting down and reading to a few people in Bombay. I hang around Penn Sound, downloading new recordings. I watch movies of some Canadian or British poet reading to an audience of 12 in the 1970s, realising that even then they had more sense than us to make a proper recording of the event. I realise that in the art world every damn performance is documented, and it is not so relevant that only four people showed up for the actual event. And yet, at my PEN reading, where only six people showed up, I tried and failed to make a recording using my pocket recorder that was drowned out by the sound of the fan. A good clear recording, ready for youtube or radio podcast or the archive does need a little prior thought and arrangement by the organisers, perhaps also a little investment, but at the end of the day this is not very much, since someone or the other will own a video camera and a decent microphone. And hey presto! Someone else is watching it and getting inspired fifty years later. And yes, I think this should be the duty of the organisers. The answer lies, obviously, not in seeing the web and the live event as competing mediums but in continuing to think about how they might work in tandem.


p.s. -- The Jack Spicer talk / reading that I quote from can be found here (scroll down to the talk at the beginning of Jack Spicer speaks and reads from Language (full work)).

[1] Note from Peter to Vivek:
..a clarification. When Priya speaks of the "C" group, she is referring to Caferati. (Whether she also intended it to be a comment on a "C" list as opposed to an "A" or "B" list is something you'll have to ask her.

Vivek's reply:
Ah! Didn't realise that. Well perhaps you can post my comment with a little annotation, as above, about my misreading.

[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.]

Vivek has a piece that is "partly a reworking" of this comment in Open magazine's July 11th issue.

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Blogger Falstaff said...

You know, I may be just old-fashioned, but going through all these posts, I can't help noticing the absence of a little thing I like to call reading. When did the primary means of engagement with poetry become listening to it read aloud (and yes, yes, I know all about the Welsh bards)? And why is the relevant competition songs or movies or other media and not, well, books?

I think we should be careful about confuting a (alleged) general disinterest in poetry and the lack of attendance at poetry readings. I don't much care for poetry readings myself, mostly because I still prefer to engage with the poem in its written form, but also partly because in my (limited) experience audiences at these things can be annoying. So maybe the question we need to be asking is not how we can get more people (or a better quality of people) to readings, but what other means we can use to help poetry reach a wider audience.

Even if you believe that poets must have listeners and must engage with society through the spoken word, I think Vivek's distinction between an audience and a community is an important one. I'm not entirely sure why poets need a 'community' as some of these posts seem to envision it. As I see it, a poet (or at least a young poet) needs an audience - preferably large, ideally engaged - and, perhaps, a small group of fellow poets to share one's work with / exchange feedback. A 'community' is useful if it provides the kind of engagement that Vivek describes, but I'm not sure poetry readings are the right forum to get at that - I think it's hard to exchange honest, thoughtful feedback in a room full of strangers, many of whose credibility as informed readers of poetry is open to question.

So, on the whole, I'd say a tighter definition of what the 'reading' is supposed to achieve, and perhaps the evolution of different kinds of public fora, would be useful. It's interesting, for instance, that Priya focuses on Adil's commentary of Arvind, and how that could have been an insightful learning experience. I agree it would have been. But it's not the sort of thing I would have expected at a book launch. The point is that rather than trying to cram everything into the one size fits all category of 'readings' maybe we need to distinguish between public readings which are primarily a way for a poet / poets to promote his / her work to an audience, book launches, public panels that are meant to offer new insights into the field (not only insights into how to write poetry, but, more importantly I think, on how to read it) perhaps with more accomplished poets discussing other people's work, and small-form workshops where people can discuss / exchange feedback. I know that the Caferati folks already do some of this at Kala Ghoda, and I think the key is to recognize that each one of those forms is a different entity, has different objectives (and potentially a different target audience) and lies at a different point on the audience-community continuum.

Finally, I have to echo Vivek's perception of poetry readings in Bombay. I can't claim to have been a particularly avid attendee at poetry readings when I was in Bombay, but the few I did attend were very uninspiring - the poetry was ordinary and the discussion, if one can call it that, vapidly polite. That may have changed, of course, (I've been away four years now) and I may just have got a bad draw, but I think for many people there's a perception that poetry readings in Bombay tend to be celebrations of the mediocre. And frankly, the idea of a 50 poets 50 poems anthology inspires little confidence. Even assuming there are 50 poets on the Indian poetry scene worth reading (which I'm afraid I don't believe) the notion of engaging with a poet's work by reading a single poem is one I can't begin to take seriously. The point is that if you want more genuine poetry-lovers to be involved in these readings you're going to need to send a clearer signal of quality. Obviously, I can't say how that's to be done. But personally, I'm much more likely to go for the launch of a book that featured extensive selections from the work of three new poets than a 50 poets 50 poems anthology.

06 March, 2008 20:08  
Blogger Space Bar said...

This is more in the nature of an off-hand comment:

I think most people come to readings because 1) they're friends of the poet(s); 2) they want to gawp at this strange animal called poetry; 3) they want to include themselves in some perceived inner circle.

I've also found that many poets are a fairly paranoid lot, afraid to show much of their work to each other, suspicious and secretive. How can there be community under such circumstances? I'd like to think it's because opportunities are few; but I suspect it's because we're not used to giving or receiving informed critique, and so rely on, as Vivek says, editorial commentaries.

13 March, 2008 08:25  

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