San Diego Poetry Guild

notes on guild, poetry, and San Diego


Live Reading On Campus (in ascending rows)

Believing like so many others that there’s no better time to talk about food than while eating, I’d like to say that blogs in the very near future will probably not be as “free” as many like to think they are now. The Guild, while grateful to blogspot for providing this domain gratis, is nonetheless shoring up petty cash for that inevitable day.

In the meantime, long live the revenge of TEXT on hypermedia! The candlelight vigils of so many poem-writing poets have clearly had their effect, and the troops are pulling back, demoralized.

Funny that the prevailing interface for what amounts to key-press journal writing sits on top of such a dazzling coordination of code and cable. It takes a mountain to move a mole-hill, I guess, and there’s that work as well—the alignment of forces and resources—that always comes at a price, invisible or otherwise.

Anyway, I’m logged on today not to read-write about blogs but to write-read about poetry readings.

Arrived early yesterday at UCSD’s vis arts performance space, home to the “New Writing Series,” which for this staging featured a couple of student warm-ups and one headliner. The space was milky warm and dark, with five rows of chairs ascending toward the back on risers, maybe fifteen chairs per row, with some lined up along the east wall.

For those who haven’t been there, the UCSD vis arts home to “New Writing” serializes darkness as well as it does poetry readings. Black walls, black floor, black chairs, (gray risers), black microphones trained on a lectern (oaky brown), attached to which is a small black clip-on reading lamp. The lectern sits on a 6-foot wide (white) fold-out table positioned about eight feet in front of the first row of chairs.

The room is dimly lit from above, boxy for the most part with 30-foot ceilings, three exits, and a glassed-in projection/control room (ever dormant) in back overlooking the performance area. Two sets of extension chords connect microphones to north and west wall sockets.

I’m there about 30 minutes early, so I watch the attendant set up the mics, test them, then settle into one of two chairs along the west wall, where she begins to tap gently into the gray-blue glow of her Apple notebook. I have taken the eastern-most seat in row three, on a riser about a foot off the ground. A man sits two rows in front of me, studying his spiral notebook. After ten minutes, he is greeted by a woman holding a sunflower, who sits down next to him, offering. They kiss, and she places her right arm around his shoulders, holding it there for a few seconds before pulling back. Now they are whispering.

Outside, through what appears to be the main entrance/exit (a long heavy black curtain reaches from ceiling to floor, and passing ‘through’ or ‘around’ that curtain is like doing the breast stroke with one arm tied behind your back—the curtain is that dense and that fluid, like black water), the sound of loud voices, talking excitedly in the open-air corridor. A few people pull through the curtain, look around, then retreat back outside. Eventually, everyone who enters stays. The room fills up. The reading begins.

What continues to impress me about ‘poetry readings’ is how rarely they seem to be about poetry. Which isn’t saying much really, because one can hardly expect anything to be ‘about poetry’ in the first place. There is the promise of poetry, though, or at least reading, and the promise is for the most part kept and reinforced in the language of those who come forward to speak to poetry or maybe about poetry or probably just to speak poetry, however that might come to pass in the carefully constructed dimness of the UCSD vis arts space.

[The work showcased via the NWS is not just poetry, by the way, but let’s use that word generally, and define it (poetry) for the time being as, roughly, the art of precision language + economies of art in practice, which will have to do for now.]

Anyway, from my p.o.v. as a third-row observer, what poetry readings seem to be about is not ‘poetry’ so much as the agitation of human form in relation to ever-fluctuating and resistant patterns of human interaction. Poetry readings are therefore, and irrevocably, never about poetry because there is always too much to be gained/lost in the choreographing and channeling of this agitation.

I begin to think like this when the primary MC/introducer gets up and, without introducing herself (not expected so much as duly noted in its absence), proceeds to introduce the Series and its pending operations by way of listing future readings and their associated readers. Then, the first of two student warm-up readers—coincidentally, the man who was there early and got the sunflower—walks up behind the lectern to read a short portrait of a homeless man who lives in Balboa Park (our urban ‘central’ park in San Diego, about eight miles south of La Jolla and UCSD, and which urban legend has it was one of JFK’s favorite spots). The portrait focuses on the homeless man and his things, his backpack, his clothes, etc. The man reading has no sunflower in his hand at this point but still speaks of the man as if, maybe, holding a just-picked flower and studying its petal-structure up close. The reader is here, that is, reading about a person he has observed from a certain distance there, at Balboa Park.

The second of two warm-up readers then takes his position behind the mics and reads a commentary on “red,” spending a few long and conspicuous moments adjusting the microphone in front of him while reading. This second reader has been identified as an “X-year” lit major at UCSD and there’s a hushed communal giggle as some in the audience get it (I think most here are UCSD students, but I can’t be sure, and I recognize a few people, older, in the front row center, poets, i.e., Rae Armantrout, Michael Davidson, Jerry Rothenberg, and I happen to be sitting next to San Diego-based poets Bobbie West and Hung Q. Tu).

After reading his story about “red,” the second warm-up sits down and then the main act is introduced (by someone). I am intrigued from the outset by what the reading now seems to be about, for the new reader makes it clear. The poems he is prepared to read, he says, are intended somehow to articulate “outrage” and “ecstatic pressure,” the “pathologies of violence and massacre.” I’m scribbling fast in my Canson hardbound 5x7-inch notebook because I know at this point that I will want to get some of these words just right, here, à la blog, and so I ease into the experience and transition (writer-reader, speaker-listener, and other managed components of this choreographed scene), and I listen, somewhat agitated, and sensing growing agitation in those around me.

He (the main act) begins with “two very early short lyric pieces,” and these are poems about:

bodies crystal falling
new breathing and I
lack of something
shifts of desire
glass break-/melting

He reads and talks about other poems, about:

’94 Chiapas
to bury shards into the corpses of moms and dads
pockets of my breathing
this magnificent bondage
Zukofsky’s “A” section 9
14-16 line pieces about ‘money and power’
altered voice
good thing
so be it

Again, I am scribbling wildly, trying to listen but also write, hear but also capture, and through the reading there is the reader’s hand, the right one, swaying and gesturing, punctuating, accenting, dancing. And in all of this—his reading, my writing, people listening, room warming—there is the lovely artifice of tribal ritual that makes of the poetry reading, today, an exercise in group agitation.

In the sound of the reading voice, I hear the choppy frenetic truncated syntax that I feel compelled now (as then) to associate with “outrage” and “pathologies.” There are fluid rushes of words intercepted by pauses, sometimes long ones of maybe 7-8 seconds. Some listeners lean in and cough. Others fidget, eyes closed. One gets up midway to leave, backpack over left shoulder.

I want to think that in the mostly quiet but sometimes restless listening of the audience there is something of the agitation I am feeling myself, but of course I can’t know, at all, what others are feeling. Nonetheless, the patterns seem to change, and I wonder if anyone else has sensed this too, at other readings: the patterns of interaction (scripted somehow in the reading of words inscribed, in this case, in books fanned open on an oaky lectern) morph and mix under the kind of “ecstatic pressure” promised in the reader’s introduction to his reading.

Here on March 12, 2003, at least, the moment meets its promise: agitation, choreographed for communal release in the staging of “New Writing” at UCSD, confounds the forms and functions of readers and listeners. The reading becomes about those forms, those functions. Energies loosed in an otherwise vacuous, milky darkness conform to the energies of reading, of reading poetry, centralized in the figure of the reading poet (voice, books, light) and the figuration of the poetry reading (listeners, chairs, darkness).

I, for one, have never and probably never will like poetry readings, but I do like this agitation.

It sustains until the last poem has been read, at which point the reader closes the book, thanks his listeners, and returns to a chair in the front row west.

A round of applause. A bit of movement. Any questions?


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