O'Donnell: Another Boring Poetry Reading and Four Unpleasant Truths

I wasn’t surprised when my five-year-old daughter threw a typical getting-ready-to-go tantrum before a reading I was giving in Fairbanks. She had the lip jut and scowl, the grumpy voice, the emphatic crossed arms, hands tucked at the elbows. That’s typical. I was surprised when she yelled, “Not another boring poetry reading!” It was the first poetry reading she was ever going to go to in her life, and she already thought it would be boring.

It was as if at five, already hardboiled and tired of the scene, she had been reading Bukowski, who, in a poem called “poetry readings,” writes, “poetry readings have to be some of the saddest / damned things ever.” Her tantrum reminded me of some hard things poets know:

1. Very few people really want to read poems.

2. Very few people want to listen to a poet read poems.

3. Being a famous poet means very few people will ever read your work.

4. There is no monetary living to be made by just writing poems.

By many people’s narrow definition this would mean that poetry is dead. They can say that. It’s OK. I knew what I was getting into when I started breaking lines many years ago.

Despite it, I made a commitment to poetry. I wrote, I read, I organized poetry events, I taught poetry, I published poems and at long last Steam Laundry came out last year. With tremendous gratitude and surprise, I had the opportunity to do a poetry book tour, traveling with Amber Flora Thomas, Peggy Shumaker, and Joan Kane, reading in Los Angeles, Seattle, Ketchikan, Juneau, and Sitka.

On that trip, I found my own small audience. An enthusiastic doctor and pilot in Ketchikan who reads poems bought a copy of every book at the book table. Two former students showed up to a reading in Juneau. A high school student offered me a power salute after I read to his class (which I misinterpreted, assuming he was raising his hand, and called on him). A writer that I admire had kind words for me after the reading in Seattle. A poet in LA dressed in an Easter Bunny suit so that parents could have their kids babysat while they listened to us read poems to a full room even though it was a holiday. I was grateful.

These were personal connections, the kind that hinge on recognition of our shared humanity, but I’m not going to use them to argue that poetry is still alive. We live in a country in which breath is measured in dollars. The fiscal blip that a book of poems makes in the world doesn’t register on the EKG of our cash economy. No matter the connections we make with readers, those four hard truths still loom for poets.

But there’s no need to panic or mourn. Yes, maybe poetry’s head’s already in the basket, and it’s far too late to ask for a stay of execution. Or to use a capitalist instead of medieval metaphor, Poetry is underemployed and has been working the fry basket of literature for too many years not to admit that there’s never going to be a promotion. So what?

Doesn’t speaking from beyond the grave lend a certain authority to anyone’s voice? Think Hamlet senior. Think of the terror the Ouija Board can instill. Think of the hair rising on the back of your neck or the cold breeze you suddenly feel in a closed room. Poetry has that kind of power. As Ms. Dickinson explained, it can take off the top of your head.

Perhaps poetry’s metaphorical death is both a relief and release. Unshackled from cash, poetry can go wherever it pleases. It can glide under the surface, free of shallow expectation. It’s the enrobed guru who eschews worldly rewards. Like the guru, poetry may stir up an occasional scandal, but it’s still making an attempt to speak the truth.

Just like my daughter. She speaks the truth, telling me what I look like in the mornings and what my breath smells like. As a poet, it’s good for me to know what I’m working with and against. The next time I invite her to a poetry reading I’m looking forward to hearing what she has to say.

Nicole Stellon O’Donnell lives, writes, and teaches in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her novel-in-poems, Steam Laundry, was published in January 2012 by Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Beloit Poetry Journal, Dogwood, The Women’s Review of Books and other literary journals.

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