A man DJing, photo shot from behind.

At its most negatively capable, poetry pinches your business, your situation, your significance, and supplants it with protoplasm, percussion, and clairvoyance. It rewires your thinking.

You need this especially when your country is at war. Two wars. Plus, it’s an election year, and any remaining sense of national unity is being fully squandered.

Your city is ever transient. New faces, personalities, are constantly introducing themselves. Poets are always moving to town. There are teaching jobs. Creative writing programs. There’s a lot of hanging out. Banter. Dialog. Parties. Who are you all and where do you all come from, personally, aesthetically, educationally? You feel it out. New friendships take shape.

There’s more and more going on now. More and more events are happening (there is a nice camaraderie in that your events are coordinated not to conflict), and as word spreads, the familiar Community expands. A public you largely share and are a part of. You’re paying more attention to how readers present, and to what the response is. A few poets really know how to perform their work. Have the knack for taking the room on a trip, no matter the venue.

One of your regulars (and a regular of the Separate and Distinct Thing) takes the reigns of a performance poetry series at an always-moving bookstore named (winkingly) for a lack of imagination. The nicest person. A serious enthusiast with extensive poetry knowledge. An anchor. You attend an Imagination Thing featuring a downstate poet whose mix of polity, poetic device, and reading impetus flips your lid. Again, cosmos dilates. Pivots. High Temple. More different thinking. Also how is Imagination Thing happening almost WEEKLY?

Zweite Partner encourages new dimensions in your thinking. He’s been an advocate since the beginning, comprehends the room and above all, digs a good reading. He has a keen understanding of audience, of theater. He appreciates that nudging at expectations and alignments allows for light and heat.

He also knows a ton of talented people. He can roll with bad luck. He calls to say the well-known poet traveling to read tonight won’t be able to make it. Something happened with the train. We open in like five hours. Who can we get?

Zweite knows some poets one state over with new books out. They live on a farm near the border. They might be able to make it in time. And they do. It’s terrific. They balance each other, minimal, maximal, each making the room their own, and the room achieves a kind of liftoff. The audience has an afterglow. Minds are charged. (Later, you come to think of experiences like these as the High Temple, and that your primary reason for doing this work is to create a space for ephemeral potential. As a deejay, you’re infatuated with moments that flare and disappear.)

Thus far, the novelty about your Thing has meant that a lot of good lineups have landed seemingly pre-formed. Before, there was a vacuum. You have no touchstone really, no history, and you’re one of a couple games in town you just go for it. More poet-friends. More former professor poets. Poet-friends of poet-friends.

Your palate expands, and rapidly. Exposure to other-than-you-know is what you want. Continuing to support local voices is also crucial. It can also be key to your mechanics. An invitation to read at your thing has become a big deal in certain circles. Local talent can also bring a more substantial crowd. The more turnout you muster the better the energy. It also pleases the proprietors. There’s no perfect science to assembling a bill that guarantees gate. Some readings that are lightly attended wind up being some of the best. The room is still the room. It has a genetic code now. Ethos. Intimacy is a different variation.

Still, you feel like you’re caring for a newborn—every change in behavior is cause for great concern.  Setting expectations about audience with your readers can be tricky. Many in the world of art are sensitive. Including yourself.

Full house or no, your Thing’s groove deepens. Poets from Poland, from Ireland, Canada, Slovenia. A decades-long New Jersey Poet reads in your city for the first time. Humble but incandescent anecdote about a group of black men driving motorcycles cross country, being pursued by a truck in Montana, but everything not as it seems. Especially human. And especially the poems—how many more worlds are you unaware of?

You and Zweite are invited downstate to read at a small college. The room is absurdly large, and everyone spreads to the edges. You’re all nerves and the audience feels like bystanders. You ask everyone to move closer. No, even closer. Make light of awkwardness. Please come closer so we can be a body. The room reorients, and you realize now you can make contact. Zweite is a subtle animator, takes it further, reads a poem called “Swift Boat Veterans for Beauty,” and the impact is compulsory, sets a precedent in your mind for how a poem, and reading, can engage.

It’s hard to go back to the office. The aura of flag-waving makes you feel like you’ve been sent back to high school for a do-over, but in slow-motion.

Poets want to read in your city. That means more options, for your Thing and the others. New presses are popping up. You think much more about style now. You must be more thoughtful and discerning when making decisions. Which means you must learn how to be thoughtful and discerning. Just don’t take too long.

People you are friendly with want to read. Locals and regulars who are very talented. You could fill a year with these people, easy. Two years. It can be sticky. You’re not just filling open spots. You think long-range. Your obligation is to the room. How do you explain your ideal in a nurturing way? (In hindsight, one of your good friends, remarkable and unique poet, waits five years to read. When it happens, it’s sublime.)

Also, don’t overestimate your radar. A local you’ve never heard of hands a book to Zweite. He reads—a symbolist bent that’s fresh. Optics distinctive from what you’ve encountered lately. A sense of discovery in the room. You run into him at the reading named for discount retailing. He translates Italian poets. Introduces his wife. You hit it off and invite them to dinner.

Books show up in the mail. Dozens of books. From presses. From poets. Publicists. You get a lot of email. You should do a better job of delegating. Your premise for hosting evolves. Don’t just bring talent YOU like, or think you’ll like. Consider your audience. What will be of value to them? Try to surprise yourself—and everyone.

Brooklyn Poet reads an enduring elegy that is an elegy for all, for her city, her neighborhood, for her anima, for our world, for poetry, and it rolls our hearts. People still bring it up to you. High Temple.

Major Poet reads. He’s won big awards. The biggest. He seems disinterested. He doesn’t get it, what we’re doing, reading at a bar. He hears backchannel that it didn’t go over well, reaches out to Zweite. He wants a do-over. You’re hesitant, but reach a compromise. He can read again, but unbilled. Let it be a surprise. For whoever shows up it’ll be a surprise. Major Poet curiously agrees. It’s a curveball for the audience. He puts his heart into it.

There is no handbook that says, “Never take your audience for granted. Whoever, and however many show up, be delighted by their presence and welcome them. Whether there’s five or fifty in the room, recognize that each made the time and effort to come to your Thing.”

At the Separate and Distinct Thing you attend something transformative. Another poet you’ve never read. Four-decade career. It’s metagalactic. You’ve never experienced THAT. It’s not surreal at all but occupies a similar capacity. He took you on a trip and your blood is up. It stays up for months. You buy all his books and imbibe. He’s so affable. He chats with you and Zweite for quite a long time. The whole experience is nutritive, makes you want to work, and you do. You want to reach your own place of creative enormity.

You book a performance art team who don’t show up. They’re so late. What do you do? So, so late and no word. Anxiety by the microphone, trying to decide what to do. Then…you hear opera. This booming duet at the front door. A wedding march. In the transom of the bar, barely out of the street stand a bride and groom full on, backlit by the evening sun, serenading the room, “You are shit, and you know you are.” It’s the only lyric again and again. It goes on for minutes. Long enough to make everyone especially uneasy. To the point of laughter and all the way back. Stacks of bumper stickers they bring. They leave them on the tables. In the DJ booth. In Arabic. Translation: NO BLOOD FOR OIL.

Continually you’re learning, often (usually) in the moment. New characters present themselves. And even postures. Your Thing gains esteem, and that means more to manage. Especially expectations. You think about belonging. Your audience, how the DNA of the room is really theirs and they take care of it. Like when creeps show up. And sometimes they do, and you realize you’re responsible for keeping an eye out. More mechanics. Experience bears awareness.

Where there is community, there are personalities. Every kind of personality. Also, a sense of ownership. And gossip. And blogs. Someone seeks to author the moment. Classify influences, camps. A hierarchy. There’s chatter. More gossip. It’s a new circumstance. Your first run-in with the digital world leads to your first memorable talks about literary citizenship.

(It dawns on you while writing this that Community Things, at their best, model supportive behavior. These events give poets and writers not just the opportunity to come together, but a place learn how to treat each other respectfully. You know, in person.)

Your city is also ever-transient. Bar Manager, now one of your best friends, gets engaged. They ask you to officiate their wedding. Plans to travel and relocate emerge. His support, input to the template, to the mechanics, can’t be embellished. It’s been particularly helpful (and healthy) to have a confidant outside the Community.

Good things do happen when you contribute.

An acquaintance stops you at a concert, gives you an elevator pitch for a magazine she’s planning with a friend. She solicits advice, then work. It goes to print. She asks, will you edit poetry for an issue? Again, you’re hesitant but you agree. It goes to print. Another issue focuses on translation, includes the Slovenes who came through town, but through a different avenue (your world is growing both larger and smaller), so you agree to advise. She asks if you’ll edit poetry outright, but you demur.

New Jersey Poet has since moved to Chicago for a teaching job. You ask him to guest-edit the next issue. He agrees—he’s never had the opportunity to edit a magazine before. The format, and the organization, grow and flourish. You take the job outright. It’s a perfect parallel to your work with the Thing, leads to important (and lasting) friendships, learning, and unlooked-for opportunities.

Zweite invites you to take part in a special performance. An abstract minimalist poet Zweite worked with. An epic poem they wrote together, comprised, exclusively, of names of colors. It’s only been performed once. There’s a cast of nearly a dozen. You rehearse together. It draws you close. You perform it at the Separate and Distinct Thing (to an audience slightly larger than your cast). It’s thrilling, also bittersweet (Zweite is to leave soon for New York, though his presence is never far). This is your introduction to poetics theater. It engages the flipped-out (secret) side of your personality. Elements of performance you understand from your deejay life (you are still putting considerable effort into this other work) are starting to wind into your poetry experience. Dissonance. Progression. Flux. Surprise.

 

 

Originally Published: May 14th, 2018

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...