Meditation on Spectacle: Part I
It’s the summer of 2001 and you’re launching a reading series. Through a longtime poet-friend visiting, you meet a new poet-friend and over beers you hatch a plan.
More like a strategy. You germinate it over future beers together, but not without much hesitation on your part.
So much hesitation that Longtime Friend emails you to ask if you followed through yet on the intention.
An idea in conversation is always easier for you than the actual sticking out of your neck. Back then at least. There was not so much to project.
How complicated can it be to host a reading? You agree on some readers and invite them to a space where you’ve assembled an audience through various kinds of low-tech promotion. Some introductions are made, some beers are had, and boom—a reading happens. Then you promise to be back next month to feature so-and-so. It’s gonna be great.
And also, will you please kindly sign up for our mailing list? Will you take a batch of fliers with you to wherever it is you go and leave them on our behalf?
The bar is very self-aware. Meaning, the people who run it don’t do things haphazardly. They cultivate deejay talent and get a crowd almost every night. Famous people come through and spin for free. No advertising is allowed.
And the environment is cool. It’s a shabby-chic bar in a still-somewhat-populated-with-arty-types neighborhood. You’ve been a deejay there for a couple of years, and they are very supportive of unique, arty events (modern dance on Sunday night? Sure thing.).
And there are tea lights. It’s dark. The sound system is excellent, especially when it doesn’t feed back through the microphone. And there are tea lights and it’s so, so intimate. Also, does anyone have a professional microphone we can borrow? Also, it’s so dark you can’t read from a page.
There is no handbook for running a reading series. No advice in print for what to do when 80-plus people show up and no one will stop talking. No instruction that says, “Get up there and assert yourself. It is your presence that will establish the DNA for how this goes down now and in the future. How you comport yourself matters.”
You have nearly crippling stage fright. One after another you’re introduced to local literati. Coteries you were unaware of. In almost every conversation you feel out to lunch, so you drink more beer. Which, for a while, is how you conduct yourself.
But they come. A lot of people come to check it out. The bar is full at eight o’clock on a Wednesday. It seems clear that we were all missing something whoever we are, and that what was needed was a place for us to get to know and support each other, to congregate, listen, and share in some collective energy.
And it’s great. You’re suddenly at the center of a detailed Milky Way that begins to reveal itself in the most unsteady ways.
But it’s okay, you’re pumped. It’s the middle of August, and you’re psyched because this really good writer is going to travel from New York next month to read at your thing.
And you took some notes. And your good friend the bar manager did as well, so you have a nice talk on the phone about what you can do better next time (this will become a monthly custom). Plus, because you’re broke a frequenter of your deejay nights offers to lend you a professional microphone—he is supportive of what you’re doing, which leads to a year-long ritual on the evening of, driving from your job in the suburbs to the stereo repair shop in Boys Town to pick up a Sure SM58 mic before heading to the bar, which you will return the very next evening.
But you’re getting ahead of yourself. It’s still August.
Before your escalating nerves can distill into full blown anxiety, some airplanes are flown into the World Trade Center.
Flights are grounded for a week. Really Good Writer from New York emails to say she won’t be able to make it. Of course, how could she?
On your drive to work, people are waving American flags on street corners.
You find an able local substitute. You drive to pick up the microphone. More flag waving. You are in shock. You wonder, will anyone show up? They do. They’re all in shock. You’re unable to speak on the microphone. You ask your partner if he’ll do the introductions. You’re partners now. Co-hosts. Co-curators. A bond is forming. Everyone in shock. The room is spacetime. It feels important to be together.
It’ll be a long while before you have enough chutzpah to talk on the microphone, but new ideas are forming about how this could work better, of who to reach out to after years without contact. Sending emails. Real chats on the phone. A calendar is forming. Partner gets an artist friend to draw the fliers.
The Bosnian-cum-Chicagoan novelist packs the house. The room is rapt, and he’s especially gracious. The political journalist who will write a seminal book about Kansas. A novelist critics compare to DeLillo reads a screamer about a poorly planned market in an up-and-coming neighborhood that embodies the gentrification impulse, and we are all implicated. The poet with the hybrid book of missives to a fast food franchise takes droll to the level of heartbreak. The room has energy. The crowd is primed. They buzz about it as if they’ve never experienced it this way. Regulars become recognizable.
The local arts weekly contacts you about doing a story which you regrettably decline. No advertising allowed. At least, not until you’re sure you have an audience that can withstand a sudden surge. (In hindsight, they’re right. When we do finally open ourselves to a story, new faces appear, which, on the whole is great, though a chunk of this added crowd assumes there is an open-mic and leave disappointed, sometimes visibly, while the rate of newcomers introducing themselves as poets, inquiring how they can be involved, is considerable. Poets like to read.)
We’re booking poets. More poets. Classmate poets with first books. Second books. Your former professor poet. Poet-translators. Lots of references to the President. To the war. A well known poet contacts us out of the blue from New England. He wears a leather overcoat. You’re so full of nerves you can’t keep up with the conversation. Your partner is well read and jovial; a critical thinker and animated conversationalist. You let him grease while you focus on details. Why are people reading 15 minutes longer than you ask them to? 20 minutes.
Poets want to read. Small presses with big talent, starting something that seems, at that time, to us, new. Poets visit from Poland, Montreal. You’re getting a lot of email. Some queries sound as if they were written to a dean. You’re writing a lot of email.
What does it mean to “curate”? Is it more than saying yes or no? How are you imagining the arc of an evening? How will one month engage an audience differently than the next?
You’re finally able to speak on the microphone. You say hello, welcome, read the bio and get out of the way. Then more. Please let us give our full attention.
Bar Manager attends on his nights off. He works the door on his own time, letting everyone who enters know that a reading is about to happen, you’re expected to be quiet. It’s a popular bar and it helps. We call little decisions like these the mechanics. Define how you want the room to function. It’s not always perfect, but generally when a reader is at the mic, the room is pin-drop quiet.
You receive a manila envelope in the mail. A manuscript from a poet in Oregon. It sits on your desk for two months. Finally, on a rainy Friday night you open it up. It’s so lucent, smart, and full of sound. You send an email. She had given up on your responding, but yes, it can work. And it does. It’s one of those special nights, friendly and vital, where you sense community here in this moment, but also at large. The following year she moves to town with her poet husband. From a request unsolicited you make good friends. Another lesson: never underestimate anyone.
Never overestimate anyone either. What do you do when people read for too long. What do you do when the British poet brings his publisher and the publisher insists on reading too?
Why don’t they get it? Why the etiquette inconsistencies? Or lack thereof altogether. Why are they not getting the room? Don’t they know there is a sweet spot? You have them until you don’t, and at that point it is fully possible to undo all good that you’ve done.
New York Poet gets it in the most elementary terms. “Always leave them wanting.”
Every month is distinctly different, though you have one constant—you’re always running late. You’re having fun, and the series is in a groove. It’s also part of your public identity now. You get invited to parties. You go to parties with poets and writers and you have something to talk about. You get introduced as So-and-So who runs that Thing. Oh, I’ve heard of that Thing. It sounds cool. You should check it out.
Many new friends. Exposure to work you didn’t know, the way it’s dropping into your lap now. You read more, and then start to scribble a bit, which you haven’t done for a long time. It’s intimidating, like the microphone. Where is your voice? Where are you at with language? You’ve been so immersed in music, in LPs, and that room, how people fill the space with their responses to what you do. That’s where your noodle is at. Digression.
To this point, poetry has occupied only particular real estate in your imagination for how it could be made, presented, performed. You’re only now beginning to realize this fact. You’re a tactile learner.
Coming up on two years, significant events happen. A couple of regulars start their own Thing. Not just readings, but performances too, in a grotto not 50 yards from your apartment, in what was then considered to be still a pretty rough neighborhood. (The grotto has been converted into a million-dollar home, now featured in what passes for our daily news. It’s for sale—just sayin’.)
This is some friendly competition, you think, wrongly. It’s a completely different Thing. They even name themselves for being individually separate and distinct. They will expose you to work that will change your life.
The experience is completely different, on a Friday night seated in a pew sipping wine. Introductions are eloquent and beautiful, and especially, written in advance. Poets you’ve never heard of are featured. Career experimental poets. A legendary performance troupe leaves you elated—there are so many ways to use language, think about and challenge language, verbally, physically. You feel humbled. You need to feel humbled, and also, you didn’t know you needed this. You need to make art.
Also, your partner, your good friend, tells you he’s moving to New York. He’s torn, but it’s time to go. He does a sendoff reading at the Separate and Distinct Thing. A long poem, killer—so good. Collective-sighs-good. (Scratches head. Why 11 years for someone to publish that book. Also, your friendship grows despite the distance. Years later you introduce him to a poet friend you haven’t seen since college. They ask you to officiate their wedding.)
There’s one more sendoff at your Thing. You have your picture taken together on the sidewalk outside the bar. Two-year anniversary. Twenty-four readings. They finally let you do the story in print. Everyone shows up. Baton passed. A new partner, also well read and jovial; a critical thinker and animated conversationalist, and one of two poet friends you had in town before all of this initiated. He can grease while you work on details. Though soon you share these roles together as chance adds to your burgeoning blueprint.
Poet, editor, and reading series curator Joel Craig was born in Iowa. In his free verse poems, he uses the cadence of conversation to trace the widening wake of narrative. He is the author of the poetry collection The White House (2012), and his chapbook, Shine Tomorrow, is one of...