Don’t Leave Me High/Don’t Leave Me Dry

Barb brings up the subject of presenting literary events to in her blog today. One of the great things about living in the Bay Area is that there is no shortage of poetry events to attend, everything from open mics to slams to author readings to process conversations, now the only thing left is deciding what is the best use of time and (very selfishly speaking) what I can get out of these literary events to further my own poetics.

Now that’s where my expectation for a literary event changes from, I’d say about, 99% of the public. I want to go to events to learn something and that means that I could go to the absolute worst poetry reading ever and walk away saying, “Ok, things I will never ever do at a reading.” Which means I am down to go to just about reading as long as I feel something new and interesting will happen; not on stage, not in the features wardrobe, not in the host’s horoscope, not in the other audience member’s cell phone conversation, something new and interesting on the page. As long as I get a sense that will happen, I am down to go to just about any reading.

So what does the other 99% of the world want from a poetry reading? According to a report the Wallace Foundation put out a few years back detailing why the public attends artistic events, the number one reason people attend artistic events is to… insert drum roll here… socialize! I guess that would explain all those cell phone calls during readings.

Note: This report (The Diversity of Cultural Participation: Findings from a National Survey, PDF available here) does not detail specifics on literary events but this has been the most comprehensive report I have found regarding any art events. If anyone out there knows of a report that focuses on lit events, please let me know.

Reason number two… emotionally rewarding. And here we hit the tight ropewalk, you want folks to mingle, have a good time, come back again, donate and spread the news to their friends BUT they also have to feel as if they have deeply benefited from having attended which I interpret as: They can’t feel as if the event overwhelmed them. They have to feel as if they are a vital and necessary part of the artistic dialogue and not just filling up seats and wasting a few hours of their lives.

For me, the balance in this tightrope walk was always in letting the audience know why they were there in the first place. They may have shown up simply to socialize or just to feel good about themselves because they showed up for a poetry reading but I always tried to let them know why it was important for them to hear who the featured artist(s) of the night was and how that was emotionally rewarding enough. Too often the only reason the host will give is because the feature is a friend of theirs and since the host likes them, then the audience should too.

Uhm, how about no?

Don’t get me wrong here, I have featured a lot of my friends but on the same tip I have featured a bunch of people who I had never ever met before and, going back to having showcased personal friends, I always made it a point to let the audience know that this was (in my opinion) a worthy poet and not just a friend of mine.

Back to the tightrope walk, I think that a lot of orgs, especially cash strapped ones, make it a priority to appease the audiences need to socialize and be emotionally rewarded over the audience’s need for high art or to gain knowledge. I am not going to fault any orgs desire to stay financially afloat but the fact that not everyone is going to leave with that full emotionally reward would be a good argument to try to appeal to their need for high art as opposed to easy art.

The Wallace Foundation report goes on to state that though folks may show up with an expectation to be emotionally rewarded that expectation usually does not come to pass. Does that mean that if an audience is intimidated or perplexed by the art that they will be less emotionally rewarded? Maybe but I think that this is where a good host jumps in and sets a bar of expectations for the feature to meet and/or shatter so that the audience can make a more informed decision which, I think, leads to emotional reward.

Ok, back to poetry events. I think that as long as the host’s set the audience’s expectations for socialization and what their emotional reward is going to be, then I think everything will flow smoothly.

To me, socializing depends heavily on the venue. If you have a big rambunctious space then folks will have a nice opportunity to chat between readers and even politely whisper to themselves during the reading. The hosts also have an opportunity to fill the space up with some big energy between the readers to a) give folks a chance to hit the bar/donate to the org or b) talk about the reading.

If you have a tight space, then it’s a whole different thesis: common sense and a good sound system should be enough to keep commentary from the audience to a real dull murmur but, if common sense isn’t around, then the host can remind folks with a friendly reminder and not a hard SHUSH or anything else that turns a promising literary event into a bad flashback to your cranky grade school teacher’s classroom.

And there you have it: If a host can find the right feature to match the right audience, then said host really doesn’t have to do much except read the proper bio, let the audience know why this writer is important, sit back and feel emotionally rewarded alongside the audience for having experienced art while gaining some knowledge that can be used when they socialize at the end of the night. Simple, no?

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