Tuesday, October 09, 2007

One of the tests of a reading – or perhaps I should say of a reading audience – is laughter. Whenever I read, I’m conscious, possibly hyperconscious, of just how the audience reacts to certain lines or phrases. There are some lines that I can be certain will get a laugh in the right towns – New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore or DC – but which might get no response at all if I’m reading on some college campus. It’s not that students at colleges don’t get jokes, or that they don’t have the depth as readers that audiences of mostly poets will have in cities, so much as it seems to be that some schools have kept it a secret that it’s okay for literature to have humor, be funny even. Would my parents be paying this much tuition for me to study something that makes me laugh? Who, one wonders, is responsible for giving students permission to actually feel at ease with writing? One of the great values of works like Ulysses or Tristram Shandy is that they do just that.

The audience at Mills was perfect, picking up on the humor from the very first line. This audience, tho, was filled with poets & Mills itself has taken an interesting turn in recent years hiring several good poets (currently Leslie Scalapino, Juliana Spahr, Stephanie Young & Stephen Ratcliffe) to teach at the same time. In short, it was as well read an audience as one could ever hope to have. When I got to the end of the sixth paragraph/line of Ketjak and read

Look at that room filled with fleshy babies. We ate them.

the audience responded with laughter. In a work full of “arbitrary” juxtapositions, ones such as this do indeed occur.

In Ashland the next night, with roughly the same texts, the audience let that line pass by in complete silence and I will concede to wondering if I was getting through. I actually started off reading Ketjak more slowly than I had in Oakland, where it had felt rushed to me out of my own nervousness at confronting a large crowd. By the time I got to the sixth paragraph/line in Ashland, tho, I felt that I was cooking as well as I ever do in a reading.

At both events, I followed my excerpt from Ketjak by jumping around in The Chinese Notebook. One paragraph that I read in both locales (there was maybe only 50 percent overlap) was

55. The presumption is: I can write like this and “get away with it.”

I was really pleased in Ashland to find that by the time I reached this passage, the laughter was every bit as loud as it had been the day before at Mills. Had a constant barrage of puns finally loosened their tongues, was I finally giving as good a reading as I had the day before (even if, in my mind, Ashland was the better of the two readings), does it just take an audience unfamiliar with “my kind” of writing a little longer to get with it, had the panda’s presence finally swayed them? I have no way really of knowing. Tho I’m glad the panda was there. Not only did my driver and I follow it to the reading (where else would a panda be going?), it brought the right energy.

Humor is not the only thing going on in my poetry, but it is the one aspect for which there is a clear verbal cue from an audience that it gets it. I have no way of knowing that an audience that either doesn’t get my humor (or doesn’t find it funny) gets anything else either. So I tend to think that a laughing audience is a more serious one. Thus when I read a response, such as the collaboration between SOU students Lacey Hunter & Nichole Hermance, that itself has some humor, I take this as a good sign indeed.