Sunday, September 15, 2013

Boring Readings are Not Always Bad

A recent photo of me at a poetry reading got me thinking.

Many poets have told me privately that sitting through poetry readings can be tough. Dull. Boring. Inane.

I would say the same thing, but even a tedious reading experience, like the walk through a non-descript part of town, can be good for the soul.

The fact is that I was not sleeping during the reading pictured above. It was mostly a terrific reading, and I was actually concentrating--or, on occasion, during lesser moments, trying to concentrate--on what the readers were saying and how they were saying it. I was submitting to other people's thoughts in a way that, at least when they aren't shuffling papers or checking their text messages and email, audience members do at poetry readings.

How rare that is: total submission to the workings of someone else's mind, in a public setting, for an extended period of time. Contemplation in company. The suppression of one's own desire to express anything other than approval or indifference.

Boredom at readings happens for different reasons. Sometimes the poetry being performed is boring, dull, inane. More often, however, it gives us something valuable to consider, Marianne Moore's "place for the genuine," even when the poetry is crude or unsophisticated. When the former is true, boredom can move poets and others rapidly to introspection, the opposite of public participation; or it can lead poet/audience members to reflect on what to avoid in their own poetry. When the latter is true, we can drift into contemplation, and find it difficult to stay with the next poem or next poet simply because we are preoccupied. This is an eternal conflict for many people, especially for writers: how to appreciate a revelation and still remain in the moment, remain outwardly focused.

Of course, poets may be bored by readings simply because they have had to leave the orbits of their egos. They could hardly, after all, be poets without egos. At readings they are forced to listen closely to people they have not necessarily chosen to hear, particularly if the event in question includes an open mic. Listening closely, or at least trying to, is an exercise in humility, which tempers ego and leads to greater compassion.

So are we necessarily complaining about poetry readings or about certain poets when we say were bored by particular readings? Maybe. Or maybe we're just complaining about having to do our work. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Sitting Down with Poets of the Bay: Episode 2

The moment I arrive, the reading is over. I've stayed too long at coffee in Alameda with my college roommate. Life is short, and the nature of the Lunch Poems series is uncertain. Still, I've driven out to Berkeley, albeit too late to hear members of the faculty and staff read. As the audience chats with the readers and begins to file out, I approach someone who appears to be in charge, and ask if he is Robert Hass, the great poet who curates the series. I should know what Hass looks like, but I do not. He is not Hass. But he is a librarian and can point me to a small man making his deliberate, downcast way to the door. He appears to be, in the words of Emanuel Carnevali, a hurried man.

Alexander Givental is a professor of mathematics. Like the other readers, he is not a poet per se. When I ask to speak with him, he eyes me suspiciously, explains, in a fairly thick Russian accent, that he is on his way to class, but could talk for a few minutes. In the meantime the librarian continues corraling readers with whom I might speak. As I'll need to do a lot, I diplomatically move from one to the other, explaining my project and enlisting their help. Givental waits patiently by the door until the handshakes and exchanges of cards are done.

When I finally return to him, Givental allows me to suggest that we re-enter the venue, Morrison Library, where he and other readers stood at a podium before a marble hearth, reading poetry to nearly a hundred people seated on comfortable couches and in leather wing chairs nicely placed around the 200' x 50' space, while students studying at gallery tables above tried to concentrate on the first-week reading. The walls here are oak, the floors, like the hearth, marble. Busts of Roman statesmen sit atop built-in bookshelves below enormous windows with views of the Berkeley Hills, huge spruce trees and campus buildings of various vintage.

We choose a comfortable couch near the hearth. I admit to Givental that I did not hear him read. He is kind, and explains that, with a collaborator, he's just done a volume of poems by the twentieth-century Russian poet Marina Tsetaeva, To You in 10 Decades. He hands me the book, and we begin to talk about why a mathematician at one of the nation's leading universities is translating poetry. It has to do with his education in Russia, with the place of poetry in people's lives there, and with his willingness to be part of poetry in America.  

Sitting Down with Poets of the Bay: Episode 1

Neeli Cherkovski is posting a picture to Facebook: the cover of the Italian translation of one of his books. Can I help? I'm distracted by the shelves and shelves of poetry lining his snug study, but I dutifully follow to his computer, bag full of recording equipment still on my shoulder. It turns out I actually know what to do. I help. But this is a small gift compared to the one Neeli will give me.

He and his fifteen year-old behemoth of a dog, Cosmo, lead me to the deck in the small yard behind Neeli's house in Bernal Heights, San Francisco's most vertiginous neighborhood. It's 11:30 in the morning on a typically sunny and comfortably warm/cool day. The house is quiet. Neeli's partner of thirty years is at work. The dog is trying to bark, but has a respiratory ailment that renders his bark more of a faint chuff. The only other sound is the breeze--The breeze must be perpetual here--rustling through the potted bamboo. 

Neeli sits on a patio chair in the corner of the deck. I switch on the voice recorder. Neeli begins talking, I fumble with the video camera, afraid, as he speaks to its lens, that I'm not actually recording him. Which is a shame, because Neeli is a trove. So I pace the deck, wanting my body language to match the genuine intensity of my interest. Every once in a while I tweak the camera, all the time listening to one insight after another.