Michael Shufro, co-editor-in-chife November 22, 2011 Filed under Opinion
For a time I’ve had mixed feelings about poetry readings, and public readings in general. Not that live readings are necessarily bad in any sense, but the delivery and stage-presence of many readers can be too slow and quiet for the modern American stage, or at least for viewers and listeners attuned to television, film and the slew of modern digital technologies. Attention spans are not, from what I’m told, what they once used to be. I’ll admit if I’m not transfixed by a performance I’m watching, my mind and attention are more prone to drift. And here’s the thing: I’m the guy who sincerely, wildly and madly loves and believes in poetry and fiction, and the limelight of every hardworking artist. But it’s not a matter of the art or appreciation of words and wordsmiths; it’s a matter of the art of commanding a stage, the art of performance and the art of spoken word. We’re all familiar with the teacher who speaks in a monotone voice or carries through an entire lecture reading from a textbook perhaps with the dazzling aid of a slideshow. It’s not enticing, stimulating or even fun. But often the lectured subject is interesting, even fascinating; it’s just not presented very well. Poets who are also musicians, comedians or slam performers know this, and combine their talents and efforts to keep audiences engaged. But not all poets are meant to be performers; some I believe are meant to be simply savored, cherished and worshipped inside books. I used to perform spoken word and slam poetry and maybe because I was and am still one of the literati, I find myself at one reading or another these days often enough. Recently I went to the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts and listened to poet Mary Oliver read a selection of her poems for about an hour. There were a variety of things I found captivating about her performance (discovering poems I hadn’t read before by her, hearing the tone and rhythm of her work aloud, and seeing a bit of the person and humor behind the poetry), but she is a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and one of the bestselling living poets in the world. Many who go to see Oliver are not going for an outstanding night of poetry performance, but – and this is in my opinion – to be in the presence of a legendary and world renowned poet. More locally I went to the Downtown Petaluma Poetry Walk and the Sonoma County Book Festival this year, and listened at each event to several poets and writers read from their work. There was without doubt a certain joy which came over me at seeing so many people celebrating books, but too often I found myself wandering off into trails of thought completely unrelated to what was being performed before my eyes. In order for many of today’s poets to capture the hearts and minds of today’s generation, they need to go beyond the written word and consider the theatre of modern culture. Today’s audiences are not living in the Whitmanian rhythms or Dickensonian rhymes; they’re flooded in the rush-hour traffic of Eminem rap lyrics and the split-second flashes of Twitter Haiku. And if anything, between all of our cellphones, computers and TVs, the attention span of the average American only appears to be shrinking. But poets untrained for the stage need not feel at a complete loss; people all around are looking for a good performance or show, even if their base expectation is to be constantly enticed and entertained, even if it means more work for the artist or less thought for the viewer; even if it means ultimately changing how we think about language and art.