I DON’T “GET” POETRY READINGS

I’m a soon-to-be graduate of an M.F.A. program in creative writing. All I have left to do is teach a few classes, defend my thesis, and read a few books. Oh. And I’ve also been tasked to write a report on a poetry reading. This last point is why I’m writing to you now.

Let me backtrack for a moment though to tell you that before I was an M.F.A. student, I was an undergraduate working my way towards a B.A. in creative writing and a B.S. in advertising. Before that, I was a teenager that lived with my father, who was a professor, and my mother, who was an English major. My mother took her major very seriously, and as a result I began reading Poe, Melville, Plath, Tennyson, and other “canonical” writers at a very young age.

In short, I’m no stranger to poetry.

However, after going to the Hoa Nguyen reading at the University of Colorado at Boulder on February 21st, I realized that I don’t really “get” poetry. Or rather, I kind of “get” poetry, as much as it’s possible to be “gotten,” but I don’t “get” poetry readings.

After the reading, I confronted a friend about my dilemma: having to write a piece on something I don’t really understand. He recommended I read the VICE article by Glen Coco titled: “I Don’t ‘Get’ Art.” I ripped off the title, but what choice did I have when Coco said it so well the first time? Coco’s title is modest. It blames no one but Coco himself for his inability to “get” art.

There are others, however, who are more hostile towards poetry and its various, associated artifacts.

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With the whole Lena Dunham Girls craze sweeping the nation, I thought I’d watch her film, Tiny Furniture. What particularly stuck out to me about the film was a statement one of the characters made about poetry. It went, “Poetry is a very stupid thing to be good at. Poems are basically like dreams–something that everybody likes to tell other people but nobody actually cares about when it’s not their own. Which is why poetry is a failure of the intellectual community.”

These are not my words. These are not necessarily my sentiments. These are someone else’s words, someone else’s opinion.

Dunham’s sentiments, or at least the sentiments of her characters in Tiny Furniture, got me thinking: if Dunham—who is undeniably making a mark in popular culture (how permanent that mark will ultimately be is another question entirely)—feels this way about poetry, how many other people share her sentiments?

If I were to answer this question based on the turnout alone for Hoa’s reading, I would say that not many people share Dunham’s attitude towards poetry. I think every seat in the room, or pretty close to it, was filled. However, this reading was on campus, so one has to ask: how many people were there of their own volition? I ask this because it’s common practice for graduate instructors and professors of creative writing to require their undergraduates to attend a certain number of readings throughout the semester and have them submit write-ups on the events. The reason this requirement is common practice gets caught up in issues of funding, branding, and other politics, which are all highly volatile topics that I believe should be acknowledged in this conversation but that I have no desire to provoke further.

To rephrase, there was a good turn out for Hoa’s reading. A former student, who clearly admired Hoa, introduced the poet. The introduction’s focus regarded a house party at which both Hoa and the student had been in attendance. The only line I recall from the introduction was this: “As I went to get another beer, I heard [Hoa] say, ‘Do you like Eric Dolphy?’”

After the introduction, Hoa began to read. “This is a poem that starts with and,” she began. This poem was then followed by “another poem beginning with and.” After that, Hoa implored us to write fucked up poems; “you know, cabbaged.” At one point, the poet began singing. The song went: “Roger has died and gone to his grave.” Repeat.

Some of Hoa’s poems spoke out about global warming and the state of the environment in general: “Mound. Native. Poverty. Ravine… Sharecropper. Trust. Vine.” A few of her other poems touched on capitalism: “My toilet seats are new and made in China,” and, “It’s simpler now, you just die in the office.” Then, “There are no free popsicles!” and finally, “This place we are in is a place. Broil the asparagus.”

Afterwards came the Q & A.

The first question: how many sentences do you write when you sit down to write something? I didn’t write Hoa’s answer to that one.

The second question: a speech regarding the history of Surrealism, which somehow eventually managed to turn a corner and become a question. Hoa’s answer demonstrated that she just so happened to know a thing or two about the Surrealist movement and its situational chronology, too.

The third question was mine: “Do you feel your poems gain or lose anything when they’re read aloud as opposed to when they’re encountered by the reader on the page?” Hoa’s answer: “[When I attend a reading] it’s interesting to hear how the author reads it versus how I read it in my head. Sometimes, I’m like, ‘I can read your poem better than you [the author].’ When [poems are] read aloud, there’s a vibrational relationship… The way I deliver them… [You wouldn’t know from reading my poems things] like [how you should] be singing that one part.”

The final question: “I’ve read all your work… Before, in your poems, I felt they were evocative, beautiful, experimental. Now, they feel more accessible.” I didn’t write the answer to that one either, but it brings me to the keyword upon which this essay hinges: accessibility.

Earlier, I said that if I were to answer the question “How many people share Dunham’s attitude towards poetry?” based on the turnout alone for Hoa’s reading, I would have to say “not many.” This question, however, was too troubling for me to allow it to be answered by appearances alone. I wanted to hear from the people themselves, so I conducted several interviews afterwards. I’ve included some of the responses I received below.

These responses are not my words. These responses do not necessarily reflect my sentiments. These responses are comprised of someone else’s words, someone else’s opinion.

“There were certain lines I enjoyed, but I feel like her stories [that she told in between reading her poems] were more interesting.”

“The idea of a poetry community ends up feeling elitist because you identify as a poet instead of [simply using poetry as a medium through which you say:] ‘This is how I express myself.’”

“I feel like poetry is trying to keep out basic, conversational language. Metaphor feels dead. It’s been done.”

“The problem with poetry is that it’s a medium that’s only accessible to other ‘poets.’”

The response that really stuck out to me was this:

“We’re introduced to poetry as it relates to the concept of the rhyme at a young age. We all read and loved Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss and to us, that’s what poetry was. Then, when we encounter it later in high school or college, we learn that rhyming is bad and so are clichés. This new poetry is hard to understand, and we still love Shell Silverstein.”

As an instructor of an intro to creative writing course, this question really resonated with me. Every semester, I see the blank stares wash over my students’ faces when I present them with a contemporary poem by the likes of Aase Berg or Sawako Nakayasu. Every semester, when I ask them to bring a poem that they like to class, I’m showered with works like “Casey at the Bat,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” and every now and then a piece by Poe, Plath, Whitman, or Cummings. There’s nothing wrong with any of these poems or authors, but there is something problematic about the spread: these poems are all several decades old, and their authors are dead.

I think this generalization points to a shift that has occurred in poetry. It seems that at some point, poetry went underground. It went quietly and without a going away party. It forgot to send Christmas cards. So, it stands to reason that when poetry showed up again at its high school reunion twenty years later, no one recognized it anymore. Poetry spoke a different language, and no one at the reunion knew how to converse with it beyond the small talk anymore. But that’s not to say that poetry didn’t have friends because it did. It had underground friends that understood poetry and spoke its new, underground language.

There’s nothing wrong with the new poetry. It’s just intimidating. This should be understandable. It’s only human to feel intimidated by something you don’t “get.” I wonder though, if that’s the approach that poetry really wants to take. But what do I know about poetry? Not much. All I know is that we’re living in a time of great accessibility. Our news no longer comes to our doorstep but to our phones, often in the form of two-minute videos. If we want to watch a movie, we no longer need to take a drive; all we need to do is click, and Netflix, Hulu, or HBO will deliver. If we don’t know how to get wine out of a carpet, we no longer have to call our mothers; we can just ask Google.

I’m not advocating for poetry to change. It doesn’t need botox or rhinoplasty. Poetry’s beautiful just the way it is. I guess all I’m trying to say is that, deep down, everyone likes getting invited to the party and being asked if they like Eric Dolphy.

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Bethany Prosseda is currently having a difficult time describing herself. She’s about to graduate from CU Boulder’s MFA program, so she’s not quite a grad student. She isn’t quite sure what her next move will be, so she can’t describe herself by telling you about her career. What she can tell you is that her reviews have appeared in HTMLGIANT and Rain Taxi, she spends too much time watching cat videos on YouTube, and she’s very grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of CU’s MFA program.