Tuesday, October 21, 2008

If the work is going to be a gift to anyone else, first it has to be a gift to the creative self

I had two very different readings recently, and both of them went well in the way that counts the most. But I let the low attendance make me feel bad after the second reading. I struggled with it a lot.

It was easy to feel good about the September 24th event in NYC because around twenty people came, which is not bad for a poetry reading at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW). It was also a group reading, and I was the anchor man following Renato Rosaldo, Pedro Ponce, Purvi Shah and Thaddeus Rutkowski.

I also planned the day so that I had time to visit the Shambhala Center of NYC before the event. So I felt very upbeat when I saw old friends and met new friends at AAWW. It was a very warm and interested crowd of writers and poets and other editors and program creators. Some very positive things came out of this. Everyone who read at this event did a great job. No one read too long. Everyone had strong and compelling work with great feeling and craft. I put a new audience-participation poem out there and got the crowd to have some fun with it, and the other things went over very well. So I was feeling very “on,” and I could feel that mysterious electrical connection to the audience. Later I heard from a friend there that some student in the crowd thought my audience-participation poem was the highlight of the night.

I don’t know if I have written much about this ever before. The energy in the audience is like a living being that you can feel and tune in to. Performers of all kinds know about this. The way it works for me is that it helps me work more closely with the feeling in the work, i.e. I can feel the work connecting with the people, and this makes it easier to discover deeper lows and highs inside the words. It helps me stay in the emotion.

It actually feels like a dialogue with a mostly silent partner, but the partner is really there, and the partner REALLY matters. Every sound that comes out of the audience can matter. Physically, it does make sometimes an electrical kind of feeling start to buzz in the air—that’s when you have everyone’s complete rapt attention and understanding. That’s where you want to stay—inside that electrical current.

You have to be open to your audience and willing to completely believe in their ability to understand—they will totally get it. They will feel it. You just need to have the goods to deliver.

You lose that link when you stop listening to them, when you become self-indulgent or afraid or arrogant.

When things are great, the electrical resonating is even like chills or tingling in your body. You are like a thousand watt bulb illuminating a great space. But it isn’t because of you the person; it’s because of what you have to give to the audience. That thing inside is beyond or beneath (or perhaps above) personality. People usually associate this kind of experience with great music concerts they have seen, but I have seen and felt this at many poetry readings by other poets. Sometimes I can get there, too.

In sharp contrast, the reading on Monday, 10/13/08, at Poets & Prophets in Philly, was in a beautiful theatrical space on the third floor of the Plays & Players Theater. I had to rush to get there on time. But I was early, and the emcee was on time. But at the start of the event there were only two people there, and they were very nice. But I think they felt embarrassed on my behalf.

Having been in this kind of spot before, I knew it was best to stick to my script and read what I had planned in advance. I read some very difficult things full of feeling. I gave the best reading I could, and they really got it. That same sort of resonating connection happened. They applauded sincerely for almost every thing I read. A third guy came. He also seemed really into it. Then it was over. Everyone was gracious about it.

Later that night, though, I made what I now think of as an error. I let it bring me down that only three people came to what was basically another great reading. Why? Because I know that most people think events like this are humiliating and sad. But the event was a success for everyone who was there, and they were other writers, activists, veterans—intelligent and interesting people. They were deeply touched by the work. They wanted to ask about it. The host was sincere in his repeated thanks. So why did I feel bad?

I have made this mistake before—letting the numbers dominate the story. But I have had plenty of great readings for big crowds, and the essence of the work is the same. The connection is the same. I actually read more and better for the three people than I did for the twenty or so in NYC. (It’s easier to read better when you have thirty minutes to work with versus fifteen.) And I did get paid, and I did fulfill my contract completely and wholeheartedly.

I thought of the first jazz musicians in Philly who had to play in dives and brothels where few aficionados would go. They knew this. They knew they were invisible and that if they would ever be “discovered” by the greater culture, it might be after they were dead or no longer great or whatever. They had to keep doing it though. They loved doing it so much.

I know I will have some great readings and events in the near future, some with big crowds and some with almost no one. And you cannot tell which events will turn out with great crowds and which will turn up mostly empty. This spring, I will be reading in an actual castle, and another time in something like a revamped warehouse, and another time in a great literary house in NYC etc.

The only things in my control are how I commit to the work and how I feel about it afterwards. About the first part of that work, I can say I am happy with these two past readings. What I would like to do in the future is to try to remember that there is another side of the performer-audience equation, the author.

The audience is one thing that gives great energy to me, but when the audience is gone, the work itself and the thing that it came from, that inner voice, that author is a support with its own energy. The creator, the author, the inner voice—whatever you want to call it—is more consistent and whole than the audience, which will always come and go.

If the work is going to be a gift to anyone else, first it has to be a gift to the creative self. If you feel like the gift is real for you, then it really doesn’t matter if there are three people or fifty people out there.

Or to put this another way, when Keith Richard was asked what his favorite music was, I think he said, “The Rolling F%^#%^* Stones!”

a poem from a prior post after many reincarnations

Awakening at Cannon’s in Allentown, 1984

for W. P. D. and P. F. H.

“Karma...describes the continuity of occurrences that weaves the fabric of life. It is not linear.... In order for ignorance to happen, lots of other causes have already occurred.”
—Sakyong Mipham

“D’jou hear that?”
The screams were so piercing
through the jukebox, the clamor,
I nudged Bill, alert amid the beer,
smoke and blaring.
He nodded, already rising.
We left the crowded tables
for the almost stifled street—
no cars running,
no drunks singing,
no pedestrians,
just the muffled roar of the bar.
But then down the street
and across the corner
we heard the scream again,
doors slamming,
boots clomping down stairs,
an exploding front door—
a slim figure fleeing,
she fell on her knees,
curled over herself
as if concrete could hide her.
He charged out shouting:
—a repeating machine,
his fists above her rising—
I shouted, “HEY! LEAVE THAT
Turning, he lurched at us,
(holy shit, I thought).
Bill grabbed
and dragged me into his car,
revved it, pulled out, aimed
his headlights at them,
blinding them.
The woman (or girl?)
squinted at us, crawling/fleeing.
He threatened her to go inside—
she shouted back she’d never.
He set to kick her hard.
Bill floored the gas—
the guy’s eyes met mine—froze.
He was just bigger than her.
Then Bill apologized:
“I’m sorry I stopped you.
He could be armed,
but we’re safe in here.
He can’t see us very well,
but we can watch his every move.
And the motor’s running....”
They argued in the headlights’ glare;
the guy hesitated, retreated inside.
She stayed prone, shaking in sobs.
Then Bill parked again—
we didn’t know what to do.
She looked over at us,
her eyes full, curious.
Quavering, too scared to move,
she was younger than I’d thought,
her face puffy from crying.
Then Pam opened the bar door,
phone in hand, urging,
“Get in here! I called
the cops already.”
She pulled me in by my shirt.
“Do you wanna get killed?”
Tearing myself away,
and going back in, then,
I realized the answer
must have been