May 17th, 2011 / 3:40 pm

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?

Tags: ,


  1. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      I feel like there are so many things I want to say about this, but I think I’d rather tell it to someone in person after having had a few drinks.
      Thanks for making me not feel so alone, Alexis!

  2. Guestagain

      Excellent, every single time without exception, when I pour a few drinks into reluctant, eye rolling, (publically) insensitive, non-lit aware friends and haul them to a reading, they uniformly end up admitting it was “very cool,” “really amazing,” a few tear up, and I know they’re not lying or patronizing me. I primarily blame the academy for perpetuating a plasticized elitist environment, as if you have to be confirmed and pre-qualified to absorb and appreciate literary writing, this is the feeling people have and nobody likes to feel stupid. Writers can tear down this phony shit, get your degree then burn it and flip them off and spread the work out. 

  3. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      On the other hand, too, there’s nothing better than doing a reading in front of an audience of people who aren’t afraid to disagree with and/or say they don’t get your writing, which I think is more likely to happen among a less literary crowd. 

  4. Amy McDaniel

       this is great, alexis. thank you. i’m so glad you’ve been having the experience you describe and i hope other poets dare to have it too. 

  5. Anonymous
  6. Guestagain

      I acknowledge a literary crowd is best for the writer and the slurs are mine not the essay’s, I know completing that much work should be respected, I think I was responding to localized community based reading and I know people will respond to what they can not, will not, or could not say or articulate.

  7. Craig Marchinkoski

      she wasn’t the most graceful or the prettiest or the most talented, but she was more concentrated on her performance/more in the moment than her fellow dancers. she was dancing at a hartford magnet high school. it was the art academy’s interdisciplinary showcase, or what my friend called ‘a puerto rican variety show.’ watching this student perform with such intense passion for what she was doing was uplifting. it reminded me of the pitchfork review of the tune-yards’ _whokill_ album which mentioned a piece written by kim gordon in artforum. in the 1983 article, the sonic youth bassist said, “people pay to see others believe in themselves.” 

  8. alexisorgera

       I’m curious to hear other peoples’ experiences. Glad to hear these. I do think that what I left mostly out of this post was the poet’s responsibility to read her words like she means it. If you’re going to read, read like the audience matters. I think that goes a long way. For instance, I can read to a “more literary crowd” and have confidence that they will get allusions and tropes that I don’t need to explain. But then with other crowds, I feel compelled to do a little more chatting, more situating. Right? 

  9. alexisorgera

      thanks, amy. it’s been fun so far! i’m NO GOOD at signing books, though. What to say. What to say. 

  10. William Owen

      How a poem is read is probably the biggest problem with poetry in the mainstream. Too many people read in the “poetry” voice, which should be dragged out to the curb or tossed in the burn-barrel like so many unwanted paper mache helmets. People writing poetry don’t spend enough time reading their poetry, and don’t spend enough time studying how to read a poem well. People like Greg Pardlo, Jena Osman, and Jane Sprague are brilliant orators. they kill it every time in front of an audience. But most people only see readings like Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem, which as a performance was not a terrific ambassador of modern poetry.

  11. Ken Baumann

      I like bringing this up (maybe too much), but up until so recently in human history has art been very local, and if it did spread it spread piecemeal, through a weird accumulative Telephone version of transmission (oral tradition and imitation and ritual)… The hyperwidely accessible and perfect representative performance/art is so new… leaves very little room for imagination, community contribution, etc.

      In other words: I think it’s important to remind ourselves that engaging less than a few hundred people with our art is good too.    

      That said: poetry, which is in that maybe-250-people-total-read-your-book world, should maybe reach harder out into that wider mass, just for the sake of Why Not and experimentation, difference.

  12. Anonymous

  13. Anonymous

  14. Anonymous

  15. Anonymous

  16. Anonymous

  17. Anonymous 

  18. Anonymous

  19. Anonymous