In the interest of full-disclosure I should mention that ever since high-school I’ve had a pretty serious dislike of poetry in general. A poem is a riddle, wrapped in a veil of metaphor and indirect reference, conjuring up images in one’s head that may or may not have been the artist’s intent. Which is fine, and in fact I have been moved by a few poems that have somehow struck a chord with me.
Unfortunately, most poetry is bad. Not in the sense that it doesn’t rhyme or that it’s too simple or too complex. It’s just that once you pry your way through all the layers, what you find is something not necessarily worth finding. When one creates art, at least how I imagine it, one is supposed to pour one’s soul into it. To be more vulnerable and honest than one could ever be in pedestrian life. But to me poems tend to come off like they were written to sound cool, to sound like they were written by edgy street poets or melancholy young geniuses. In any case I hope that’s what they are, because if they’re as sincere as they pretend to be, the poets have shown us their innermost souls only to prove once and for all that they have the souls of shallow wankers.
This is more or less what I expected to find at the New Genres Avant Garde Poetry Reading last Thursday night. And I was partially wrong.
The event took place in Living Arts, an art gallery downtown. There was an avant garde installation on display, which consisted of a darkened room with TVs displaying corrupt image files, a projector showing muted landscapes, with some occasional text which asked the viewer to watch for various things. The piece also featured a low, droning song with clicks and whistles mixed in. I’m guessing the piece was meant to evoke a certain atmosphere, which is exactly what it did, and I quite liked the strangeness of it.
The music faded, and the reading was introduced by a man who began by eating chips loudly into the microphone for a while before calling up the first reader, Grant Jenkins, a professor at TU and local poet. Jenkins informed us that he hated poetry readings and that he planned to play his bass guitar idly in a corner while everyone else read, which I imagine was meant to add ambiance to the setting, but which kind of came off as dismissive of the other writers when he said it.
Most of the poetry was good. Some TU students read moving pieces about their pasts, their pain and what had hurt them, or what they were passionate about. Other poets were not so great. One guy who looked like a white Cornel West and whose name I forgot out of spite read a poem composed partially of lines from the Chicago Manual of Style, which he claimed was meant to be a love story but didn’t really seem like it meant anything.
On the whole, I would say that the experience was rewarding. My only criticism was that the avant garde angle wasn’t really necessary. Most of the poetry that was any good wasn’t especially avant garde, and the longer the night went on the more I realized that “avant garde” really only meant being weird for its own sake without injecting any substance into your work.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If you like weirdness for its own sake I wholeheartedly recommend going to an avant garde poetry reading. If you like poetry, however, I’d stick to vanilla readings.