Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Hard seats, ethereal words: A case for shorter readings

I love going to readings … but I’m also a fan of leaving readings. When reading work, whether as a featured reader or in an open mic, less really is more.
            For the past thirty years or so, I’ve been a pretty avid attendee of readings. In my younger days, I’d happily drive three hours to hear a poet I liked. I’ve always collected those experiences—the time I heard or met so-and-so—and even more importantly, I’ve collected details about an artistic life and the process of creation.
            Through hearing readers live, I’ve been exposed to stories about where a particular poem, essay, or work of fiction came from, and, perhaps more usefully, how the writer positioned himself or herself to receive it when it arrived. I like hearing about writers’ habits—when they write, where, how often, with what. All of my early exposure to writers taught me quite a bit about the many ways I, too, could live a writer’s life.
            But even when I go to great effort to get to a reading, for me, it never fails—when readers overstay their welcome, my eyes glaze over.
            I’m going to go ahead and throw out a number here. Someone who is invited to give an individual reading should plan for no more than thirty-five minutes of material—because thirty-five minutes is as much as I can easily (or happily) process from a seat in the audience.
             What do I mean by thirty-five minutes of material? For a prose writer, that could be a story or two. For a poet or a writer of flash prose, that may be a dozen or more pieces, but it includes the talk between the work—the introductions of individual poems or the light banter that serves as a segue between work. With a five-minute buffer for late arrivals and a brief introduction, an hour can be nicely filled. A Q&A afterwards is part of the culture in some places, and I always enjoy them—at that point, we’ve switched from counting pieces of paper in a writer’s hand and wondering how long we’re going to sit there to a new activity, one that is lively and multipartite.
            Incidentally, the conversation between individual works is a wholly necessary aspect of a reading, especially a poetry reading. It’s just too taxing for the audience if a reader moves from one poem to another without a few words in between to offer a break. I’m the first to admit that some people are better at this than others. Some people have a gift for improvisation, and some are natural comedians. It’s nice, at the very least, when one is pleasant. These small intermissions should offer a break from the work, while stopping short of pulling the audience into a different mood.
            Poetry requires a very specialized form of concentration. We have to keep our wits about us to understand language that is, by its nature, dense. (That’s the main earmark of fine poetry, to me—concentration of language, in which every syllable has been scrutinized and every stress carefully placed.)
            And there’s another type of thought that we draw on to really appreciate a poem—or, more accurately, it’s a cognitive process that is behind thought, in the active sense. We have to hear words in combination and try to understand them in all of their density, but we also have to be attuned to something beyond all of that—some feeling that is evoked, some presence. The poems I like best transport me beyond the words, beyond the room—and we aren’t transported through analysis; we’re transported through sense.
            Readings contain an element of the tantric, in that they transport divine energy through all of those present. But the word “tantric” evokes the idea of tantric sex, misunderstood in our culture to be little more than sex that lasts hours and hours. Trust us Westerners to take something nourishing and simultaneously limit it and super-size it to its most wasteful extreme. Poetry has the capacity to convey these sorts of vibrations and to elevate a listener—but I’m not necessarily in prime condition for a long, sweaty, intense poetry session.
            There was a time in our history when people were in condition to hear a long oration. We’d all settle in at the feet of Jonathan Edwards to hear “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God,” and when he was done, we’d be waving our lighters, begging him to do “Freebird.” There wasn’t going to be anything worth watching on TV for another 215 years or so, and one can only do so much quilting.

            These days we have shorter attention spans, and I suspect that even the most practiced listeners find a brief presentation much more satisfying.

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