When art and life mix?

Townspeople at a reading

I’ve been doing some readings lately for my new book. I’ve read at colleges, in the community, at art centers. I’ve sold a lot of books at these readings. I’ve watched people smile and cry at these readings. Sometimes people laugh at the right times, sometimes they laugh at the wrong times. Always, people seem to be hearing me. Except for the one deaf guy who told me I read too fast. People buy ¬†books for themselves, for their daughters, for their childhood best friends.

Poets talk a lot about how poetry is dead to mainstream culture. Nobody wants poems anymore. Well, I’m beginning to wonder about that. Have we, the poets, created an insular world for ourselves because we’re insecure about our words? Is it safer to keep ourselves sequestered in the academy–or even on the internet where we know the audience who reads our work will respond in a way familiar to us? Is it frightening to think that we might write something not quite as erudite as we imagined?

I’m pretty sure my poems aren’t immediately palatable, but they’re not impenetrable either. A woman at my reading the other night–a joint book party/art show with local artists using my poems as inspiration–said to me, “I liked your poems before, but I didn’t really get them. When I heard you read them aloud, I totally got everything.”

What does that mean? It’s certainly pointing to something about sound and how reading out loud well is important to poetry. Maybe, though, we ought to think about ¬†bringing our poetry to non-poets more? Maybe we shouldn’t be satisfied with 10 other poets reading a review of our work in an obscure, albeit likely wonderful, literary magazine. What on earth is wrong with being more public? Somehow public poetry has gotten a bad rap–it’s too performance driven, too easy. But I don’t perform. I read, and people respond.

I guess I’m writing this because I’m in the midst of having an experience that runs counter to my imagined experience. I was reticent to read to non-poets, community members, my parents. Sure, there are poets whose approval I want. They are the people whose work I fucking respect. But is that where it ends? I’m deriving a lot of joy from reading poems to people who don’t generally sit down with poetry. I’m beginning to think there are real opportunities out there to be public about our work–without sacrificing our “intellectual purity,” and we’ve just squandered them because we’re socially awkward, artificially humble, and generally insecure…Or maybe these moments are happening everywhere. Maybe there’s a really rich culture of poetry that people are not talking about.

I wonder, too, the effect of media culture on anything that happens in local communities. It’s become more important to get your art out on the internet, say, than read to a roomful of local arts lovers. We all know that our lives are corporate-driven; doesn’t that effect our very outlook on the way art gets disseminated? Think about it this way: how many of us vote in local elections? How many of us know our city commissioners? No, we vote for president. Is it demeaning to want to do things locally? Is local art by definition less than, or worse, does it negate the possibility of a larger audience?