A couple weeks ago I decided to check out a local open mike. I wanted to see what other people were writing, get a chance to meet some fellow writers, maybe even read some things I’d written recently. The open mic night was hosted by a local writing center, so I hoped it might attract a more literary crowd than a reading at any old café or bar.
I was running a little late as usual, and was worried when I climbed the stairs to the second floor that I’d be interrupting the first or second reader by barging though the double doors. But when I got to the small room with a podium and rows of chairs climbing to the back, a man stood waiting patiently for all stragglers to file in and take a seat. There were probably a dozen or so people, a few younger, most middle aged, seated in groups of two or three, black winter coats draped behind their chairs. Maybe another dozen came in by the time the night was over.
The host read some poems from his magazine and then opened up the floor by saying, “We haven’t had a sign in sheet for this reading yet, and though we might start one someday, I don’t see the need to do it now.” And he invited anyone who cared to read to come forward and do so.
I did not have terribly high expectations for the night, but considering what came next, I might have been asking to be ferried to the moon and back in the arms of a stuffed walrus.
I am surely revealing myself to be complete snob, but the reading fulfilled almost any open mic cliché you can think of. Ho hum Haiku? Check. Guitar players? Check. Long-winded, self-important old guys? Check. Random/angry bearded poet playing atonal ditties on the concertina between poems? Oh yes.
And there was more. A woman who made “scarves that tell stories,” showed us her latest scarf, entitled “Midnight Blue.” She hung the dark blue scarf adorned with “planets and comets,” on the podium, brought out her new singing bowl, passed out bells (we were to be the stars), and had the audience chant “midnight blue ... midnight blue ... ” over and over while she read her poem/song and played the bowl.
An aging hippie read from his book of haikus. He promoted the book saying that it was a great value at $5 since every copy came with a $1 pack of rolling papers on the front cover.
Admittedly, there were moments of humor, cleverness, even thoughtfulness. And there were less outrageous readers. A Native American woman read about her pride in her culture. A younger guy starting a humor poetry magazine read poems about his relationship with his wife (though I had hoped the poems would be funnier). There were many readers who were new to the reading, and every time someone new got up to read everyone applauded and gave a warm reception. This, at least, made the whole wacky crowd bearable. And in the end, I had an OK time, though I didn’t volunteer to read. The right moment never seemed to present itself. I kept thinking, well, how do I read my poem about looking at the stars in Albuquerque after that guy?
But what bugged me most about the reading, beyond the general weirdness of the participants, was the lack of connection I felt with almost anyone reading there. Not that I couldn’t appreciate the style or content of the work. There was rather a lack of empathy or imagination in the poems read that night, even though I could tell the readers felt deeply about them. It was just that these thoughts and feelings were not transmitted thoroughly enough to me in the audience to matter. Each reader seemed enclosed in his or her own bubble up on the stage, reading as if in front of a mirror.
This lack of consideration for the reader stretched from the obscure poems, which preferred not to clue the reader into the "what" and "where" and "how" of the poem, to the simpler ones which didn’t give enough detail to spring into life as individual and not generic toads in their imaginary gardens.
I know the feeling of having pride in something I’ve done and being excited about it. And I’m not sure there is a time when as a writer you stop thinking, “I wrote this. So it must be good,” even if for a short time. But actually connecting to an experience or emotion in the reader’s life through choosing just the right words is the tough part in writing, something that I never stop wondering if I’ve done right. And I find that when you force yourself not to be satisfied with something the way it is but reimagine it twenty or a hundred different ways is when things start to happen in a poem.
OK, most of the time, I don’t get much beyond one or two, but that’s the idea anyway. Getting out into the poetry scene here in Rochester reminded me how hard the work of writing can be, but also how important it is to think about the reader. To keep this person who bothered to show up to your work in mind, sitting in a row by himself, waiting to hear something good.
Dan Schneider is a former high school English teacher who lives and writes outside of the Rochester, N.Y., area.
Previous Posts By This Author: A Twitter Poetry Project