Friday, July 22, 2005

Poetry Reading: Feature Film or TV Sitcom

I was very interested in Ron Silliman’s recent comments on the format of poetry readings: “the two recordings reminded me of one of the basic truths about poetry—the one-hour reading, or something relatively close to it, is always preferable to the 20-minute one. As an experience, the differences between the two are not unlike the differences between the major motion picture and a 30-minute sitcom on TV.” He also says, “With a longer reading, you can almost year the moment at which the audience relaxes into the text—it always occurs somewhere after the 15-minute mark, sometimes after the 30 .... At 40 minutes or thereabouts, I’m so tuned into a reader’s sense of time & the formal scope of the text that it is as if a vista opened up.”

I am really curious what people think about this (even though it’s a safe bet that Silliman would not want to listen to my poems for five minutes). What format do you like? I think it’s true that the 20-minute reading has become the “standard.” It’s hard for me even to know what I prefer because I’ve heard so few “long” readings recently. Tonight I’m looking forward to the annual blockbuster benefit for the Squaw Valley workshop—Lucille Clifton, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, and Kevin Young—but in this kind of setting, each poet will probably read for considerably less than 20 minutes.

I do think the typical short-reading format is almost more like a book review than a reading, in the sense that I don’t fully experience the poetry. I just get a taste of it, sometimes enough to know I’d like to read the poet’s book so I can really get into it. But usually I don’t get into it at the reading itself. As I’ve written some long poems recently, this interests me a lot. If I read my longest poem in full, it would probably take 40 minutes, and a couple others would take 20 or 30 minutes. Typically I read an excerpt from longer poems (they’re in sections that can be read independently), but it would certainly be “interesting” to do a reading of nothing but one 40-minute poem. I think Silliman may be right that an audience can’t really hear the poetry at a reading until they’re 15 or 30 minutes into it. What do you think?


Diane K. Martin said...

Methinks it depends--on who, what, and where.

Robert said...

Yeah, it depends, but if you were organizing a reading series, what format would you use? After the big reading we went to last night and hearing the massive grumbling from the audience about the length of the reading as they left the auditorium after two-hours-plus, maybe we have the start of an answer. After two hours it seemed like the audience would have mutinied even if Walt Whitman had come back from the dead and was on stage reading--Brenda Hillman didn't have a chance.

Diane K. Martin said...

I think it still depends; in fact, I will add to my list and say it depends on when, because if we were not sitting there hungry listening to Kevin Young read poems about how much he likes pork, well, we would not have been so ready to bolt out of the hall.

(For those of you out there wondering, we were at the Squaw Benefit reading in San Francisco yesterday evening. There were six readers: Robert Hass, Lucille Clifton, Kevin Young, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, and Brenda Hillman.)

I was just thinking of the reading last year up at Squaw Valley itself--that time with Bob and Galway and Sharon and Cornelius Eady, C.D. Wright, and Dean Young. It was after we were well fed. Many of us sat there with a glass of wine in our hands. The evening breezes were wafting in the doors. Am I remembering it wrong? Anyway, it didn't seem so long at all.

In contrast, last night, well Bob read much too fast, seemingly sensitive to the fact that 5 others would read after him. Galway, believe, in contrast, took much more than his 20 minutes. Or did it just feel like that, though he is immensely popular?

And maybe Brenda's kind of poem is more suited to reading on the page.

Well, yeah, it was all too long--certainly long enough that we didn't need the second round robin.

Diane K. Martin said...

I guess to the question of whether it is best to read for a long time or short time, I say short. Why not leave them wanting more? I think two readers reading for 20-30 minutes would work in most venues.

Robert said...

I think I agree, but I guess it's the musical model I can't quite get out of my mind. You wouldn't want to go to hear Sonny Rollins and have him play for 20 minutes. I went to a wonderful piano recital by Richard Goode last hear in Berkeley, and he played two complete Beethoven sonatas, a Haydn sonata, the complete first book of 12 Debussy preludes, and tossed off a couple little pieces by Mozart and Chopin besides. The concert was long, and great. It sure would be nice to do something like that in a poetry reading. (And there are those five-hour Grateful Dead shows from back in the day ....)

Diane K. Martin said...

How many people listening to the Grateful Dead in those days did not have chemical help? Also, mind you, they were not sitting politely, but dancing around, no? I'll say it right here: Ron Sillilman, are you listening? It would take more than drugs to make me voluntarily sit there for an hour listening to you.... Not only that, I think it's pure ego (on his part) to believe otherwise.

I don't know. Maybe the reader could have the automatic encore up his or her sleeve, but wait for the audience to enthusiastically request it.