Poetry Readings As Sacred Space

I am still in the afterglow of my featured reading at Robin’s Bookstore last night,. Robin’s is Philadelphia’s revered independent bookstore and literary Mecca. How grateful I am when I have a poetry reading and people actually come to hear me read. Let out sharp little intakes of breath. Smile. Laugh. Say afterward that THEY ACTUALLY ENJOYED MY WORK

I think we take it too much for granted that in small rooms in bookstores, coffeehouses, church basements, and on street corners all over the United States (and I suspect all over the world), people gather to get naked together via the words they have written. Being basically a shy person who longs for the life of a cloistered nun, I find it difficult to face a reading but I become filled with delight as the evening goes on and I realize people are listening carefully to these words the duende brought to me.

In addition, for me, one of the most joyous parts of a reading, one I always look forward to, is the open reading that follows the featured reading. If I am not the featured reader, I often go to other people’s readings and participate in the open mike. While we're on the subject, let me say there is a special place in hell for featured readers who do not have the courtesy to stay and hear the poems of those who have come to hear them. These people are strapped in slippery folding chairs beside microphones that read a monotonous alphabet to them for all eternity. (Oh, pray for mercy—even the self-obsessed may hope for redemption.) But I love the opens as much as the features, although in a different way.

The people who read in the open often tend to be newbies, those who haven’t published much yet, students, people in mid- or late-life who have just written their first poem, people who have written for the drawer a la Emily Dickinson for years and are just now creeping out of their room and venturing to share work, 13-year-olds who have just discovered haiku, cowpokes and mechanics and elderly, tattooed Hell’s Angels who pull out a poem written in pencil on the back of an old envelope..

Such work is often not polished but it invariably contains elements of naked truth. You are being privileged glimpses within someone’s thoughts and souls that I have not encountered in any other place. For some it stops there but you start to have a family feeling simply because you have come to know a lot about this person. For as many years as you encounter such people, they will continue to read similar poems, which you appreciate for their content. For others, you notice over the years that they are studying and learning more about the craft, which of course allows their thoughts to strike deeper within the listeners’ hearts.

Readings, whether in subterranean drippy caverns or lofty rooms where through Palladian windows you see the tops of trees, are sacred places, where we gather to enact over and over the rituals that we hope will open the numinous to us, even as do churches, theatres and maternity wards full of newborn babies.

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