I was a teenage werewolf

No, not a werewolf. I was a person who attended poetry readings.

Maryrose alerted me to a very nice post on Mark Wallace's blog about how nice poetry readings are, how they allow poetry communities and poetry-based relationships to flourish, and how keen this whole world is.

Curtis Faville responded in the comments with some concerns about such "poetry communities" and how the performative nature of a poetry reading says nothing about the quality of poetry on the page, which he seems to equate with the quality of poetry.

Now, resigning myself to the role of poetry blogger, I'm going to use this opportunity to reply to both of them, first to suggest that Faville is a bit off in his sense that the page is the proper home of poetry, and to bear witness to my own experiences with poetry communities.

1. The page is not the ultimate arbiter of poeminess. That is limiting and ahistorical. It denies the poemy effectiveness of language when spoken. It is a giant "fuck you" to sound poetry. It insists that poetry is not for now but for the ages. But, as someone who lives now and not in the ages, I could hardly care what the ages or those who live in the ages think. Their poemic concerns are, by and large, none of my business. They are a wildly unpredictable bunch, who never return my e-mails. I'll let them work out poeminess on their own; they won't decide what I get poemy goodness from.

2. The performative nature of the page is indeed different from the performative nature of the reading, and one doesn't necessarily translate into the other. I think I just mentioned this.

Now, on to my experience as a teenager who, unlike Wallace, had access to poetry readings. Then we'll get back to this. (We will, today, ignore the role of the internet.)

When I was 19ish and growing up in New York City I started going to poetry readings. For a while I went fairly regularly to readings at the Ear Inn. Perhaps some of you reading this also were going to readings there then. Do you remember me? At the time I looked something like the guy on the left, the taller one:

No, you probably don't remember me. I found going to these poetry readings mostly an alienating experience, mostly (with a few exceptions) filled with endless encounters with unwelcoming careerists, whom I had nothing to offer. I was a quiet, awkward teenager. I had little to offer for a careerist poem. Even the poetry zine I was publishing was more interested in what people who didn't consider themselves poets wrote than "real" poets. I was largely superfluous to the scene. No one seemed to be talking about things I was interested in talking about anyways -- no one was talking shop, certainly, and if they had it probably would have been a very different type of shop than what I was interested in.

So I had access to a poetry scene as a teenager, and found it to be fairly disgusting and off-putting. It was nice to see some of the poets whose work I enjoyed read, and it made me feel connected to moderately famous people, but these connections were fairly ephemeral and certainly were nothing like what Mark Wallace is talking about.

And then I moved to Portland, where there wasn't a poetry scene (of the sort of poetry I was interested in, anyways). A handful of (generally non-careerist) poets got together (read: were organized by David Abel) and started up a scene, and it's doing well now, and now I finding myself agreeing with Wallace's assessment, that the interaction of interesting people is one of the main draws of "being a poet". I'd even go further, and suggest that some of the most interesting poetic moments happen in those or out of those interactions -- or, at least, it's been important to me. (See: Frank O'Hara: The Poetics of Coterie by Lytle Shaw, and eventually there will be a link to a pdf for The Redundancies here.)

So now I've lived in a place with a dysfunctional (for my needs) poetry scene, and one with a functional poetry scene (for my needs), and I'm about to move to a third city, and I am, frankly, a bit worried that I won't have a functional poetry scene in this new city. Which is to say, that I won't have poetry in this new city. In that sense. And what will I have to do about it, or what will I be able to do about it.

3. Which makes Faville's reaction -- of withdrawal, of burying one's head in the page, and declaring it to be the true place of poetry -- seem all the more tempting; it is safer, more controllable. Hell, we can all agree, is other people. But I'm not ready to give up on the possibilities and the poetics of human interaction yet.


  1. k said...

    I read the whole entry, I swear, but mostly - you're so young! SO YOUNG! Awwwwwwww.  

  2. Lo said...

    Oh, my goodness, I love that picture. The Poet and the Councilman. That picture itself is a poem for the ages.

    I bet you will make there be Poetry in Toronto.  

  3. Geofhuth said...


    As I continue to listen to "Keep Walking," I'll respond to this with my own counter-thoughts.

    I understand you contention that you, as a consumer of poetry, do not care about the ages and their interest in poetry. You even mentioned this on my blog, assuming that I would not have any interest in the ages (a point I did not respond to). But I, as a critic of poetry, am concerned about the value of particular poems and oeuvres over the long term. This does mean I can adequately assess future assessments of value, but that doesn't take away my responsibility (self-determined) to consider the issue. I'd also say that most poets, as creators of poetry, have at least some interest in posterity, whether they admit it or not.

    The page (or its simulacrum, the scree), simply by the weight of fact, is the major space within which poetry is transferred between people. Over the past couple of weeks, I'm sure I've read at least a few hundred poems, but the only poems I've heard read aloud are a few of my own poems that I read to my wife. And that kind of average is about right. Most people who experience poetry at all experience the vast majority of it on the page, and silently. The page is what provides status to poems (via publication and dissemination), and the page is the major means by which the poem is transferred across time.

    And, despite the prevalence of readings and sound files, this will continue. Why? Because poetry generally requires heavy concentration on words, and we can facilitate this concentration much more effectively (and efficiently) via text for our eyes.

    The history of poetry, which began as oral expression, is not particularly germane to any discussion of today's world of poetry. The aural culture is much less prevalent for poetry than the print culture, and that is simply the way it is neither good nor bad. But I'll note that even the simplest, least visual of poems, tend to depend to some extent on their visual presentation.

    None of which is meant to undermine the value of sound poetry, of which I'm a practitioner. But I'll note that sound poetry has always been--as with visual poetry--shuffled off to the sidelines of the poetry world. Not that I support that, but I note it. Sound poetry will be transmitted through time primarily by audio files, but that is only because it has to be.

    Considering poetry readings: They seem primarily aural events, primarily events that do not include the element of understanding the poem. By this I mean that most people cannot hold in even the surface information presented to them in a poetry reading, so they receive the important aural value of the poems, but not their entire intellectual value. Something like understanding the poems to be sounded but not articulated. I'm fine with this situation and love merely taking in the sounds and as much of the sense as I can, but this means I'm never getting the whole poem. That's why I tend to buy books after a reading--or, better, before, so I can follow along in the text.

    In my own little poetry community, I know a few people, but not many. I have a couple of friends, and I've started to attend all the readings I can. Just to be part of the community and to support it. But it has little to do with my poetry itself, unless I'm reading (which I've done three times in my twenty years here). I don't have relationships from these readings that enhance my creation of poetry at all, yet that doesn't matter to me. I'm there simply for the sounds. And I like that.

    ["Keep Walking" just ended. More on that in a second.]

    What I do like about this community is that it has now merged the "zeep" poets (simple autobiographical stories that are easy to comprehend on first hearing) with the avant garde poets of the university crowd. It's good to see poets of different stripes joining together, since I find little value in coteries of poets, considering that the world of poets is small enough to begin with. Now if we could only get the haiku poets to join.


  4. Chris said...

    I was a little younger (15) in that photo, but photos of me from those days are scarce, especially online.

    Geof, thank you greatly for your comments, which, assuming I don't flake out, I would like to respond to in greater detail soon enough.

    Also, I realized after writing this that maybe I should explicitly say: I mean Curtis Faville (whom I've never met) no particular disrespect. I just disagree with him, and get a little cranky when I disagree with people sometimes. But I am under little-to-no illusions that people should agree with me about these things! I'm just offering my opinion as an option.  

  5. Geofhuth said...


    Yeah, don't flake out, man. As you say, and as I firmly believe, we don't all have to believe the same. I enjoy discussion with people who don't agree with me, though, so go ahead and give your point of view. Just keep the greater poetic community intact. And throw up your next PDF soon. I'm having fun with those.


  6. Curtis Faville said...

    Dear Chris: I missed this post last month, but thought I'd take the opportunity to say something in response.

    First, I'm in no way "against" poetry readings. I've been to good ones, as well as bad ones. They're fine, they should continue, and why not?

    My problem is with the matter of emphasis. There are a lot of young people who come first to an awareness of "poetry" through slams, open mike, rap, etc. They may even develop a little skill at performing at a relatively young age.

    The effects and contexts of live reading and recorded speech are different in kind from written or printed matter. Drama has been with us for at least as long as poetry, and it has a distinguished history. "Dramatic" poesy is/may be the highest form of poetic composition possible. But the circumstances and conditions of "performed" work are different in kind from written/"composed" writing.

    Work which succeeds as declaimed may or may not possess the qualities which we (and we ARE our own "posterity" by the way) appreciate in the recorded works of the past.

    Great poetry readers, great actors, great readers in general may have no compositional skills at all. Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando weren't great poets/writers, but they were possessed of great genius on the stage (or screen). This is because the skills that make great actors, or readers, are different in kind from those skills which create good literature.

    There is nothing wrong with being able to read literature, effectively, in public. There is nothing wrong with good, or great, poets reading their work in public.

    What I find disturbing is--

    1) The idea that great, or good, poetry must be suitable for the audible voice.

    2) The idea that the oral potential of a poetry can be used as a value in measuring its importance as literature.

    3) The idea that by acquiring the skills which may succeed on the podium, one has attained the status of "writer" without regard for the measurable values of analysis and careful appreciation.

    4) The idea that writers can build a "reputation" through the effective projection of a public persona--i.e.e, Ginsberg, Bly, Dickey, Pinsky, Kinnell, Oliver, et al.--apart from the inherent quality of their literary merit.

    5) The idea that one cannot "be" a poet without somehow performing and participating in the reading "circuit" which exists primarily on college campuses and through publicly sponsored and underwritten literary venues.

    Nevertheless, having said all that, it is still true that some very good poets are also very good readers (of their own work); and it almost amounts to a duty to make some effort to hear them when the opportunity arises.

    I first heard John Ashbery read about two years ago. It was a revelation. Though his inflection was relatively flat, much that had seemed not to work on the page, was made accessible. But I continue to suspect that work which "needs" the interpretation of being heard, may be limited in one sense to the means of its apprehension.

    Are Creeley's poems the less if we didn't hear him read them? Did they only begin to "make sense" when we saw his stumbling progress towards the final line-break?

    Finally, writing is a solitary process. Aside from collaborations, which don't amount to very much in the last analysis, composition is about one person producing a text. To encourage young apprentices to emulate the performance as the precondition, or preeminent forum and occasion of poetry, is a distortion of the writing process. Extemporaneous "composition" may be barely a form of composition, but that's more a feat than an act of thoughtful production.

    If you would be a poet, the place to begin is on the page. If dramatic presentation is your goal, then your writing will be adjusted to that mode. But learning to be a good reader, per se, will not necessarily improve your writing. Reading may also "teach" you something about your own work, which may be useful, or may not be. As far as is known, Whitman didn't read his work in public. But his writing is eminently readable, and makes dramatic sense as performance.

    We also know that many of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, which introduced the technology of electronic amplification and projection of both voice and image, were NOT even very good readers. That ought to tell us something.  

  7. Chris said...


    Thanks for your post; I've responded here.  


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