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On not being boring
I’m not sure what is worse, being boring or being bored. Being boring is perhaps more egregious. Being bored I can cut the borer some slack by reminding myself of my relative impatience around someone recounting, in too great detail, local traffic lights and their illogical timing: an irritation perhaps, but hardly a conspiracy, and hardly fodder for an extended monologue over dinner, for yes, when the boring are on a roll there seems to be no stopping them.
In an essay in the New York Times this morning Jennifer Schuessler notes the following:
Boring people can, paradoxically, prove interesting. As they prattle on, you step back mentally and start to catalog the irritating timbre of the offending voice, the reliance on cliché, the almost comic repetitiousness — in short, you begin constructing a story.
There is, in the margins of the dull conversation, plenty of room to create alternative narratives, practice description, recombine sentences, analyze their structure, work backwards to recreate the childhood that creates the mind that creates the rather dull story one is forced to endure, cocktail in hand. But what of poetry?
How does one deal with the boring where poetry is concerned? It’s all very fine to encounter a dull book, one can set it aside, but when one is settled into a reading? There are certain qualities, noted above, that simply create room for one’s own work churning away between the lines. Some qualities of boring make one want to pull one’s head off. Others, when taken to extreme, can become something else entirely. Riffing off of John Cage, Kenneth Goldsmith notes, “there’s a certain kind of unboring boredom that’s fascinating, engrossing, transcendent, and downright sexy.” There is also, as Vanessa Place notes of her own “Statements of Facts,” a moment “where the unboring goes into boring which is unboring as the boring becomes an unsettling.”
What are the qualities of the unboring boredom? What makes something irritate as much as engross? What makes one set one’s own narrative aside; allows one’s own creative muscles to relax and simply receive? Or does one ever simply receive? I am thinking of the reading (I’ll talk about the actual reading of the book in another post) that blindsides one’s creative impulse, at least momentarily, that makes one feel one has been elsewhere.
Goldsmith makes the following distinction: “Unboring boring is a voluntary state; boring boring is a forced one.” Goldsmith’s relationship with boring is fascinating, and his essay on the same is worth the read. My own relationship is less distinct. I am not at all sure what the line is between productive and unproductive boring, or irritating versus stimulating. I’m fascinated by the qualities of such experiences, and the challenge of trying to describe that qualities: does it have something to do with the language—how worked it is, how polished, or unpolished? Is it to do with a relatable speaking subject? A particular rhythm? A performative presence or gesture? The quality of the reading voice? Is it content? All of the above? What is the percentage of irritating and stimulating that evokes in me a blissful combination of presence and non-presence? Is it different for every case?
It’s impossible, surely, to make a broad statement as much as I am trying here. But I like what Stein says: “If every one were not so indolent they would realize that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic.” Occasionally I become aware of myself being at once painfully present or blissfully transported in the middle of a reading, but often it is not until after, until I am safely on the other side of the event that I can appreciate what has just happened.
I won’t recount the outright boring, but I can list the stimulating. I have found it hearing Seamus Heaney at Princeton, Allen Ginsberg in Montreal, Christian Bök at the old Soft Skull Bookstore in Brooklyn, Caroline Bergvall at Blue Stockings in New York, Lisa Robertson at Haverford, Paul Durcan at the Ottawa Writer’s Festival, Anne Carson at Hunter, and Kenneth Goldsmith at Issue Project. The experience was very different in each case, and not necessarily about taking the top of one’s head off, but rather about creating a space in which one is very present, and very transported. There is the matter of trusting wholly in the work as an adequate vessel for the ride. And the fact of not being in the least boring.