This week I am applying for grants to research and write a book called Virtue at the Coffee House. Here is a description of the project, lifted from my application. This will be the first of many blog posts sharing notes and experiences along the way.
Performances of poetry have always formed a part of American life, from the great houses and circles of Native American societies to the coffee houses and libraries of contemporary cities and towns. Among the continent's earliest human inhabitants, these performances for centuries served clearly defined, often sacred purposes. Over time, while many public recitations and readings have continued to fulfill such functions, many others have drawn crowds whose purpose in gathering has been other than religious and only occasionally commemorative. In other words, performances of poetry in their contemporary American settings have tended to take on Aristotelian functions of catharsis and consciousness-raising. But these functions are not the entire story. Over the last half century readings and similar events have proliferated to the point that they serve the patrons of strip malls, chain bookstores and small public libraries as well as the denizens of Bohemian clubs and coffee houses. Across the “United States of Poetry” (Holman) they have served to build communities of enormous social and educational value, confirming the observations and speculations of philosophers from Jean Gebser to John Stuhr.
Of these performances, certain effects are clear, but a variety of social and aesthetic questions remain. How do these performances differ from city to suburb to small town? How do they change the lives of communities and individuals in different settings? How have the everywhere-and-nowhere virtual poetry communities and the imperatives of perceived celebrity altered performance scenarios and poems themselves in these settings? Is it possible to identify common personal and community motivations or the development of common aesthetic conventions? Has in fact the predominance of performance poetry changed the way we think of poetry itself?
By engaging communities directly, this study will consider current practice, and especially the social and intellectual significance of poetry in performance, in context of its constant presence in America. The resulting book will prove valuable to both scholars of contemporary poetry and to a larger audience of those who participate and attend performances, which take place every day of the year, in dozens, if not hundreds, of local communities each day. Scholars will benefit from the book's discussion of the simultaneous rapprochement and mutual hostility between the poetry publishing establishment and the spoken word circuit, as well as its consideration of the aesthetics of variety and inclusion, the "All Styles Welcome" approach of most readings and open mic nights. A general audience will find scenes and characters with whom they can identify and whose lives will shed light on their own brief and lasting, superficial and deep public experiences of poetry.