Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Good work is good work

Clearly Meant is a thrice-yearly interview and reading series I host at the Berkeley Public Library’s Claremont Branch. The reading takes place on a Saturday afternoon, from 2:00 to 3:00. The second year of the series finished up in June. 

The series is fairly unusual in that it is a small local reading that focuses on one poet. The poet reads her work, then sits for an interview with me and a discussion with the audience. There is no open mic.

To get word out about the poet and the reading I create an eight page chapbook that is handed out free at every library branch. I make fliers and post them. I list the reading in local online event calendars. BPL has a Facebook page and I try to get the reading promoted through that.  

Audience turnout, however, really depends on whether the poet promotes the reading to her friends and fans. If the poet doesn’t bring in friends and fans, we have a small audience. There just aren’t many who will show up for a reading by an unknown poet.

The smallest audience we had up to this June was a turnout of eight, if I remember right. That was for the most well-known of the poets I’ve so far invited. I figured the small turnout was because the poet didn’t expend much effort at promotion. That’s fine. Promotion shouldn’t be the poet’s job. Promoting is a separate energy and different from creating. Our other events have drawn 15 to 20 attendees. 

Until this June. The Clearly Meant for June had a grand total of one audience member. 

I’ve been a featured reader where that sort of thing has happened. You could cancel, I suppose, but there you are, holding your stack of poems, a little magazine bookmarked with its pink Post-It, you’ve practiced your patter. I bet there are people who have performed to a totally empty room. 

If the room were totally empty I imagine I would walk away. But if one person is there, well, when you read to an audience of any size each person hears your words as one person, you might as well let your poems out of silence to the person who has brought her ears.

The June poet read for us, an audience of two: me and the audience member who was also a poet. He uses the Claremont Branch frequently and has come to other Clearly Meant readings. The June poet and I sat down for the interview. After some Q&A we added our audience member and he was pretty interesting too.

I chose the June poet partly because I knew she was very active in the community. She hosts a reading series at a bookstore. She helps organize an annual poetry festival. I see her at literary events around the area. I looked forward to a lively discussion with her and her fans. 

Perhaps the turnout was small because another poetry event was scheduled at the same time at another branch of the library. Perhaps the turnout was small because it was an unusually hot day and people considering their options chose against the one that required sitting in a little unair-conditioned room. After the reading, the June poet told me the Clearly Meant reading was one of three events where she was featured that weekend. Perhaps the turnout was small because she was overexposed. Perhaps it was just random. We pay the featured poet (another rare thing for a poetry series), so having a tiny audience is looked at askance by the budget people. A series very few attend is a series that gets canceled. That’s too bad, but that’s what happens. 

I’m prepping for another Clearly Meant in October. I’ve designed the flier and am working on the chapbook. I get paid for putting this all together because Clearly Meant is an official library program. Good for me! It’s nice to be paid for something you like to do. Even people who don’t attend the reading will read the poet’s work because the chapbooks do get picked up. That’s a good thing. Anyway, good work is good work. I hope we get a room full of eager listeners in October. But who knows?

In July I was reading a collection of essays by Kim Addonizio, a writer who lives in Oakland. Kim Addonizio has published books of poetry, novels, a couple books on how to write. She’s almost famous! But her essay “How to Succeed in Po Biz” is a jumble of anxieties and mishaps. 

“Many are they who harbor the burning desire to become successful poets and rise to the top of their profession,” Addonizio begins. “To see one’s name on the cover of a slender paperback, to have tens and perhaps even dozens of readers, to ascend to a lecture podium in a modest-size auditorium after being introduced by the less successful poet, who is unsure of the pronunciation of your name — these are heady rewards.” 

Note the number of readers the “successful poet at the top of [her] profession” can expect: “tens.” It’s sarcasm. But it’s true. I would be “the less successful poet” in this scenario. 

Later in the essay, Addonizio spins out a more dramatic version of the reading. Besides the negotiation over the honorarium and the rigors of travel, Addonizio contemplates how unsociable she is. “You are a writer, after all, and prefer to be alone in your own house with your cat. You don’t really like your fellow humans, except for your boyfriend, whose stories and mannerisms can be usefully stolen and put into your writing.” Ultimately the reading takes place before “an audience of three in a six-hundred-seat auditorium. …Tell yourself [i]t is the work that you love, and sometimes you even get paid for it. Tell yourself you are lucky, that people envy you.”

source: Bukowski in a Sundress: confessions from a writing life by Kim Addonizio. 2016. Penguin Books, New York.