I have been a teetotaler of the traditional variety for many years now but effective immediately, I will also no longer be partaking of poetry readings; they are too radically injurious to both physical health and spiritual well-being.
I know it’s a cold, dead, lonely time of year to cut myself off from the warmth and light of culture, but I have no choice. A few weeks ago, my darling and I attended a friend’s poetry reading. Poet-friend had recently published a chapbook of his work and quite naturally invited us to this event, but I very much didn’t want to go; thinking about it made me feel sad and sort of itchy all over. While I was sure his poetry would be good, because I know him to be smart, funny, articulate and thoughtful, I worried about the crowd. In retrospect, I’m not precisely sure what sort of poetic shenanigans I thought they might get up to, apart from possibly smelling strongly of patchouli or recklessly dropping words like “flow” or “memory” or “truth” or “real” in polite conversation which, while dreadful, aren’t really harmful; nonetheless, I fretted.
On our way there, Husband happened to wonder aloud who else would be reading; I became first offended, then terrified, then hysterical. Others reading? It turns out, poetry readings very often feature more than one poet. I brought out the smelling salts.
The event was held in a bar that was strongly redolent of cheap smokes, even though smoking has been disallowed in bars in this great city for at least 5 years now. It was due to begin at 8, so we arrived at 7:50 or so and secured a pair of desperate-looking chairs. Based on the experience of sitting in one of these chairs, I imagine that in its 30-40 year lifespan, it’s been broken over the backs and heads of no fewer than 17 people; that it’s been repaired 16 times, each time by the drunken or otherwise impaired victim; that said victims were journeymen drinkers, possibly poets, and sharp fighters but were not skilled in the gentle art of furniture repair. I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered a chair less comfortable or less beholden to the laws of physics, for how it was still standing at all I cannot explain.
All the poets and organizers were on site by 8pm and the microphone was shown repeatedly to be in good working order. Yet, someone must have thought we were at a fucking rock concert rather than a school-night poetry reading, because the culture didn’t get going till 8:50, by which time my back was already in full protest. Poet-friend assured us that it wouldn’t be a long event, that each performer had a manageable 7 minutes each. So we stayed, even though I was already dreaming of a mixing bowl full of Robaxicet, Tylenol and various NSAIDs.
When the event finally got underway, I was heartbroken to find out that the first performer was not our poet; not a poet at all, in fact, but a novelist. This young person got up and read the preface to her novel in progress. Bless her soul, she kept it to 7 minutes but those 7 minutes were rough work; I could barely hear her above the noise of my screaming back. When she wrapped up, the organizer announced a 15-minute break; I thought both about leaving and punching the organizer in the head for this unaccountable intermission; I refrained from doing either, to my peril.
We stayed. The longer we stayed, the more impossible it became to leave, the more horribly rude it would be not to remain and hear our friend’s reading. Surely, he’d be next! Wrong. Young lady novelist was followed by a young gentleman poet who gave us 20 solid minutes of poetry that I absolutely failed to make any sense of; one line, however, has sunk its terribly memorable claws into my brain and won’t let go:
Luxury bags fuck me to death.
(A confusing statement which I understood just enough to identify as an outrageous lie, for he continued to recite after announcing his own ignoble demise.)
Had anyone looked at me just then, they would have shrunk from the wild look in my eyes. The time passed slowly away in a haze of pain and sorrow and something like a prolonged convulsion as I struggled to control my stupid face, for I wanted to weep and laugh and roar all at once. This reading concluded, finally, and there was another 15-minute break, and then our friend finally took the stage. And he was wonderful, as expected, and I wondered why all poetry readings couldn’t be just like that.
When we got home, I cried and took a bunch of painkillers, but I couldn’t sleep for the agony. Over the next several days, I swallowed a stomach-destroying number of pills—because that chair, in that stank-ass bar full of culture and big dreams, had set my pinched nerve back months. I wrote a blog post for my now former job while on Robaxicet and found the next day that one of its “paragraphs” comprised only a bunch of vaguely related clauses connected by em dashes.
I am mostly back to where I was before poetry tried to kill me, but I clearly can’t risk such injury at the hands of culture again. There’s naught to do but sit in old lady chairs reading old lady and old gent novels that my old lady brain can make sense of; and I won’t forget the ice pack.
11 Comments Add yours
Have you read Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s ‘Heaven and Hell’? Further proof that poetry can be very bad for your health 😉
I have not…should I?
Totally – the whole trilogy is wonderful 🙂 However, one of the characters learns early on that poetry can be deadly in a cold climate…
LOL I am
tempted to write this comment
in haiku format
Who knew poetry could be so utterly dangerous? I am sorry for your back pain but your post had me laughing all the way through.
Well, if we can all laugh at my pain, I’d say the event was a win after all! 😉
total sympathy, sorry too about the back. but try to imagine how it feels to BE an older, embarrassed-to-even-be-doing-this writer of small, pointed poems not even probably meant to be performed but read. reading last, or even worse, second-to-last. that, my friend, is pain.
Well, I can imagine part of it, having given academic papers as part of a panel; it can be quite awful. But I’ll take that pain over being unable to sit comfortably any day. 🙂
Perhaps your experience qualifies for fourth place by the following standard:
Ha! Douglas Adams is the answer to every problem, I think.