(I wrote this in 1999 after my second Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. It appeared in Riding the Meridian as part of a longer piece, "Bread Loaf Diaries." )
The entire enterprise of public poetry readings is a painful one
for me. When I first began performing my own work, a friend, an
elderly Maine poet named Wilbert Snow, saw how much I was enjoying it
and warned me, wagging his finger. "Creative contact with an audience
can destroy a poet. Look what happened to Vachel Lindsay!" That was 25
years ago, and I have still never looked up what happened to Vachel
Lindsay, lest it stop me from giving readings.
I love reading my own poetry in public, and I get compliments when I
do. I take no credit for this; I attribute it to the fact that my
poems are frequently comical, and therefore out of the mainstream.
Audiences know what to do about funny poetry: they laugh. Everyone
knows their part, and it is comfortable. But most American poetry and
poetry readings are deadly serious, painfully intimate, like a
prostate exam, dreadful but necessary, 90% embarrassment and 10%
In case you have never attended a poetry reading let me describe one.
Imagine you have taken your sweetheart out for an evening of chamber
music at the local arts center. You join forty or fifty
highly-educated adults seated on folding chairs and wait politely. The
hour arrives. But instead of a tuxedoed string quartet, in comes an
11-year-old boy, dressed like Jimmy Olson on a bad bowtie day, wearing
a tuba, carrying a baseball bat, and with an overstuffed dimestore
photo album tucked under his arm.
The audience applauds. For his first piece, the boy--we'll call him
"the poet"--plays a brief series of scales on the tuba. The audience
takes a deep breath and holds it. The poet misunderstands this as a
signal to proceed, so he favors us with a second creation: he opens
his tuba's spit valve to eject a bubbly stream of sputum and
condensation, which splatters on the floor.
The audience, in rhythmic unison, sits perfectly still. Pleased that
he has been so entertaining, the poet drops his tuba and shoulders his
bat. He takes a few tentative practice strokes, swings for the fences
and smashes the bat into his own forehead. The audience averts its
gaze as he bleeds for several stanzas. The audience stares at the
ceiling, then at the floor. Thus encouraged, the poet, for a grand
finale, opens the photo album, which turns out to contain not
snapshots, but X-ray films, all revealing metastatic cancer in the
bodies of the poet's loved ones: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles,
wives, children, self, and historical figures. The audience stares and
gasps. Some weep, some snore. The poet closes the album, steps back
from the podium, bows. The reading is over. There is applause.
There are a dozen more readings to go this week. I can't wait.