Tuesday, December 14, 2004

One of the little ironies of poetry is that “open readings” are not truly open, at least not in the sense of any randomness of infinite possibility. Rather, any open reading series that I’ve ever observed turns pretty quickly into a community. There are the regulars, the newcomers, the invited outsiders & I’m sure a social anthropologist would be able to articulate the roles, especially among the regulars, even further.


I was reminded of this last week when I read at the Philadelphia Free Library, an imposing four-story building that occupies an entire city block just down from the Art Museum. Although I was invited specifically to read with Margot Chew Barringer, it was clear from the initial invitation six months earlier that we were to be the featured readers in an open reading series. Held on the first Monday of each month – Linh Dinh will be reading with Tree Riesener on January 3 – the series is hosted by poet Dan Maguire and has that identifiable core of regular attendees who know one another. A featured reader is made to feel very much the special guest, but that’s different really from being in a space – Kelly Writers House, the Poetry Project, Canessa Park, wherever – in which the poet feels literally “at home.”


After Margot & I had completed our sets in the rooftop gallery that is the setting for the series, Maguire read out the names of other poets who had signed up to read. There appeared to be an unspoken rule about keeping it to two poems per person, and most were introduced just by their first names. But it was evident that many of the readers already knew one another & some, Maguire indicated, were participants in a writers’ workshop conducted at another of the city’s 55 libraries.


The range of work presented over the next 45 minutes was exactly what you might expect if you have been observing open readings, as I have, for nearly 40 years. There were poets who clearly were publishing, attending events like the Mabel Dodge festival, and getting work out that aspired for the most part to the School of Quietude in all its various manifestations. There was one man who recited from memory a poem in perfectly rhymed iambics a shaggy tale involving bears and constipation – this echo of Robert Service got the heartiest applause of the evening. One young woman read a poem about stud farms in Kentucky that made the process of breeding horses sound exactly like ritualized rape. A captain in the Philadelphia fire department read some work. Another woman had a poem about her ichthyosis. The fellow sitting directly behind me got up, read and made a pitch for the work of the Magee Players, a theater arts group for the brain injured in which he’s a member. There wasn’t a single work during the entire evening that wasn’t carefully considered & constructed. Maguire himself closed the reading with a poem about participating in a workshop led by Robert Bly that sounded influenced not at all by Bly, but rather the wry, evolving humor that used to characterize the best poetry of Gregory Corso.


All this reminded me of the original open reading series in which I’d participated, back in late 1965 & into the following spring, at Shakespeare & Co. Books in Berkeley. I could be found there every Sunday afternoon, listening to a revolving community of readers that included such people as the late Pat Parker, future blogger Gerard Van der Luen, future right-wing commentator Stephen Schwartz, Richard Krech (my very first publisher), Marty Abrahamson, Paul Xavier (in those days Paul X), Alta & John Oliver Simon (the lone UC Berkeley student to regularly make this scene, which was all of four blocks from campus), the future rock critic John Poet (in those days John Thomson), even Judy Grahn. The only thing we had in common was that we were all relatively new to poetry & working very hard to figure out just where this might be leading us. Pat Parker was married back then to Bob Parker, tall & thjn, who wrote what I recall as lovely, very skinny poems influenced by Robert Creeley. It was Bob who first turned me onto John Sinclair’s magazine Work out of Detroit and well as Kauri, edited by Will Inman, two mimeographed periodicals that accepted my work literally during its first year of existence, and through which I got to know significantly more of the national scene. It was also into this series’ slot on Sundays that Shakespeare & Co. dropped in a memorial reading for Jack Spicer in January ‘66, which is where I first heard Robin Blaser & first connected with Spicer’s poetry.


The event at the Free Library also reminded me of the Tenderloin Writers Workshop that I ran in the late 1970s, and which was later run by other poets including John Mason & Kit Robinson. That workshop was much more indigenous to its inner city neighborhood & so had a different feel than the off-campus, hippie-inflected series in Berkeley. Also it was a workshop as such, tho occasionally we had guests, including Bev Dahlen, Bob Holman & Steve Abbott. Yet a number of the participants in the workshop – which included Eskimo writer Mary Tallmountain, future Crayon co-editor Bob Harrison & some others who went on to long-term involvements with writing & publishing – also were regulars at the open reading series that took place in those days at the San Francisco Public Library, very close to an exact equivalent of the series at the library here in Philly.


While it’s easy to note the few who went to publish, especially if, like Pat Parker or John Oliver Simon, they went to publish a lot, the majority of poets in all of these series are writers who might be characterized by a single unifying feature – they don’t read much, if any, contemporary poetry. That’s exactly how you get rhymed poems about constipation & bears. I’ve always been sort of dumbfounded by that – my big problem has always been how to keep my poetry reading habit down to a manageable addiction – but it does seem to be an absolute constant among such series as these, enough so that I have had to think hard over the years about what it means to produce poetry essentially in a vacuum.


Surely it’s a legitimate means of using the art. More than published poetry, even at its best, this mode of poetry naïf, to give it a name, is a remarkably personal medium. The degree of work involved in creating a couple hundred couplets on the topic of constipation & bears is not inconsiderable – and to do so with wit & humor all the more challenging. That is a work that really can only exist in today’s world in the immediacy of oral presentation. But the response to it will also be immediate, even if not long-lived.


It was the immediacy of response that ultimately drove me out of the open reading circuit sometime around the summer of 1966. I had discovered, as I suspect every slam poet today must discover, that nothing succeeds in a live audience environment better than humor. I saw more than a couple of the regulars in the Shakespeare & Co. series start to evolve into literary stand-up comics. With the evolution of the Actualists in the mid-1960s, this was actually a possible direction that one could take with one’s eyes wide open. But I knew already that, while I always wanted humor & puns in my poetry (especially bad puns, deliberately awful, a genre unto itself), I didn’t want ultimately to become a stand-up comic. I’d actually given that a shot for a little while earlier in 1964 & knew that becoming the new Lenny Bruce or Lord Buckley wasn’t what I was about. Tho I might have done a fabulous variation on The Nazz.