Some Thoughts On Poetry Readings: Part One (A Lot of Less Is More)
Recently, I agreed to take part in an upcoming poetry reading with an economy-sized premise: twenty poets read their poetry but for only five minutes each. A few years ago, a music critic, assessing The Magnetic Fields’ triple LP 69 Love Songs, assured readers of the review that the 69 songs are brief: “nearly all under three minutes: there’ll be another one along soon.” The same principle would seem to apply to this upcoming reading: attendees who don’t dig my stuff won’t suffer too much; they can rest assured there’ll be another, less sweaty poet along soon. And since I have been known to sweat when speaking publicly – my students are used to my ever-present Evian and handkerchief – five minutes sounds about right (to my metabolism, anyway).
Actually, I was so pleasantly surprised by the idea of a five-minute time limit I agreed to take part in the event without a full understanding of the premise (this happens when one replies too rapidly to skimmed E-mail): twenty poets present their wares for a maximum of five minutes each, yes, but they do so before a panel of judges. The panel will pick a winner, and the winner will get a full-length and more traditional reading slot in the autumn, at one of Toronto’s premier literary events. (Oh, and the twenty poets have to be thirty-five years-old or less, but that’s only because the organizing institution is apparently this old and wants to celebrate the fact.)
It will be fun if the panel of judges is a motley cross-section including: the judge with something like cred; the bleeding heart who will hug the losers; and the witty Brit who will be ruthless, surgical. In short, it will be fun if this is American Idol and one receives one’s props or abuses from the panel’s good and bad cops immediately after reading, while one is still sweating under the lights.
But what is slightly disappointing about this event’s otherwise novel premise is the rewarding of a winner and, by extension, the validation of the full-length and more traditional reading. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the full-length and more traditional reading in and of itself, and when one pays to see a particular poet, one probably wants a reading that’s longer than five minutes. And the concept of being judged is hardly novel to those who attend slam contests. And Darwinian competition is hard to avoid in the veldt that is the publishing world (isn’t a magazine’s slush pile a Proterozoic sludge out of which only a very few finally pull themselves?).
And yet: if you don’t care for the judges’ final choice, you probably won’t want to pay for, let alone sit through, the victor’s full-length and more traditional reading in the autumn. The real pleasure is in the playoffs. The audience will surely enjoy some of the twenty poets. It might even enjoy an embarrassment of riches! Or it might, at times, feel embarrassment. Or boredom. But that’s fine because there will be a lot of feelings to feel, a buffet of them. And whatever the audience does feel it won’t need to feel for long. And whichever poets the audience does favour – the poets whose readings will seem all too short, cut-off just as they’re starting to cook – well, these poets’ names can always be Moleskined and Googled later; their books can be bought from book tables, their recordings downloaded, their blogs visited. The spirit of speed-dating – a phenomenon I’ve always thought silly – will be well-channelled by this event, I think, put to good use. Surely the super-quick KO, which gives (a kind of) value for money, has a place outside of boxing? And surely even seasoned readers can benefit from an old-school showman’s principle: the shorter, sharper performance can leave an audience wanting more.
There will always be a place for the longer reading, but it would be nice to see more literary events, at least in my city, adopt the fun, perhaps even humane format of brief, multiple performances. I write “humane” not just because I tend to prefer to experience poetry on the page even if I do enjoy a good reading from time to time; I write “humane” because organizers of readings ought to give more thought to the entertainment and sheer comfort of civilians! Readings are often attended (if not plumped up) by poets’ friends and families, smart non-specialists who may prefer a bit more variety – who may prefer a variety show. Assuming one wants these smart non-specialists to return of their own volition or even buy a book – assuming one wants a larger audience for poetry (and one may not want this, or believe the pursuit of this is valuable, and that’s fine) – the comfort of these folks (and all attendees, really) should be taken into account. At the very least, they shouldn't be left with the impression that poets are long-winded, monotoned mumblers. (Leave them, rather, with the impression that poets comprise an eclectic, punchy lot.) As my ex-publisher often stresses at literary readings (quoting some old adage, I think): the mind cannot tolerate what the ass won’t bear. More breaks - not just linebreaks - and more brevity are good, I humbly submit.
Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...