Thursday, January 14, 2010

A reading

Last night, with the teaching week over (except for some hours today at the Center), I decided to go over to a new coffee house with an open mic across the street from the college and give some of those yoga poems a whirl. I knew when I went that it wasn't likely to be a crowd serious about poetry or any kind of crowd at all for that matter, but I must say I didn't expect what I got.
When I arrived, I looked around for five minutes in vain for this coffee house. I couldn't see its name on the sign, and it didn't appear to be in any of the places I looked in the shopping center. Finally, in an obscure corner on the far far left side, hidden by a building and in the darkness, I found it.
It was actually a very large place, with much unused space, divided into two parts. The first part was the business end of the cafe, selling hot drinks and pastries. The other half, which apparently can open up into a patio in warm weather, was a performance space. There were maybe 7 people scattered in this space, so big it echoed.
The master of ceremony was a big florid man in a Hawaiian shirt with the most insincere manner of any person I have met. He managed to make "Hello" sound as if he didn't really mean it at all. He sat down with me and asked me a bunch of questions as we waited for some kind of audience to show up (in vain, as it turned out), asking me what exactly I taught, and then starting a conversation about women vs male writers, telling me he had always assumed that women wrote lighter stuff than men, but then he read some of Oates' stories, and was startled at their darkness. I told him that there was no particular female subject matter or style. He said he had taken many writing workshops, so I wondered how he had come to that conclusion.
At this point, if there had been some way I could have slipped out easily, I would have left, but it wasn't possible. So I sat through the performance of a novice guitarist and singer who had never performed before. I was rooting for her. The mother of three, she wanted to return to college to study music, but her husband thought it was a waste of time. I guess if she wanted to be a professional musician, that might have been the case, but there are other things she could do, and she said she loved working with kids. I encouraged her to take classes, not just in music, but toward a degree with a certification, in case she wanted to teach. She hadn't thought of that before, but I think she liked the idea.
Then I was up. The blank faces of the audience told me that these people had no idea at all what to expect from a poem. The fact that these were also some of the yoga poems, and having eaten, I could not really perform the asanas for them , didn't help.
To them, these poems were no different from the off-key singing of the performer before me or the mutterings of the half-cocked magician who followed me.
But the performance of the master of ceremonies was one of the strangest I have ever witnessed. I have always been interested in religion, though I wouldn't say I truly adhere to an orthodoxy of any kind. Studying spiritual practices and yearning toward the immaterial, I find ritual fascinating and revealing. But fundamentalism or orthodoxy for its own sake, cloaked in the conventional words, holds no charm for me. And my brush up against self-righteous born-again people in VA and elsewhere didn't endear these sects to me either, since they always assumed I, as a Jew, must have no belief in the true God at all. So this guy's presentation--I have to call it that because I don't know what else to call it--was kind of amazing to me.
Truly, this person has a gift of some kind. His voice was oddly mesmerizing, and his manner that of a natural teacher. I am sure he could teach anything he chose to. What he chose to do last night was a kind of Powerpoint presentation centered on two poems. These were not poems by poets, really. One was written by a fallen unknown confederate soldier, a kind of a prayer, with a purity of its own because it was not pretentious.
The other was another story. It was written by a millionaire of the late 19th century, a Chicago land developer whose name I do not recall. His life seemed charmed; he had a happy family, with 5 kids, several million dollars, owned much of the lake front property in Chicago, etc. But then came the Chicago fire and burned the lot down. He helped to rebuild some of this and to house those who were rendered homeless by the fire, but then he decided to take a cruise with his family to Europe. As it turned out, they left without him, since the city fathers needed him to help them with something. And predictably, as these narrative arcs go, the ship with his family on it ran into something and broke in half, or so I understood, and all of his children were lost, though the wife survived.
So the guy took a ship out to that point in the Atlantic and wrote what the master of ceremonies thought was an "amazing" poem, evidence of his great gifts as a writer, that had been preserved in its original manuscript form. Of course, this was doggerel. It revealed nothing true at all of the man's great pain, which was certainly in itself true and understandable, and the story itself was worth telling. But the poem... should have been forgotten. It is a private prayer, nothing more. I'm sure it gave the man himself solace, but it has nothing to offer us today, unlike the story itself.
There are plenty of gifted Christian writers, an abundance. When he could have chosen from among this lot, for him to choose this poem was a kind of perversity, it seemed to me. It's too bad, but I won't be going back there.


Lou said...

Who knew such things were taking place right here in River City!

Robbi said...

I am not surprised. It seems a rather Irvine thing to do.