Friday, October 27, 2006

Mary Oliver

Went to the Mary Oliver reading in Indianapolis tonight. On the one hand, how great to see such a huge crowd for a poetry reading -- there were hundreds of people there (I am terrible at estimating crowd size, but Clowes Hall seemed about half full, and I think it has a capacity of 3000). And it looked like a lot of them were buying books. On the other hand, how many of those people will attend even one other poetry reading this year, or buy a book of poetry by somebody else?

I don't like it when I start to feel resentful. In my defense, I already hadn't been feeling well, which I'm sure contributed to my little bout of crankiness. A few years ago, I went to a show by the singer-songwriter Melissa Ferrick, in a local bar; there were maybe 50 people there, not a horrible turnout, but not a packed house either. Two nights later Ani DiFranco gave a concert on campus, and Melissa had enough of a gap in her schedule that she was able to stick around, so she got tickets and went to the concert. (I actually ran into her there, and she remembered me from having chatted with me at her own show, and gave me a big grin and a hug -- which made my night.) I kept stealing glances over in Melissa's direction during Ani's show, and she looked sort of down and cranky, and she left early, and I didn't really understand why. Tonight, I think I understood the little "where were all these people two nights ago?" voice that must have been muttering inside her head as she sat in that packed and cheering auditorium watching somebody else get to be the rockstar.

The reading was ... well, I hadn't heard her read before, but I didn't feel particularly surprised by what she read or how she read it. I was a bit surprised by a couple of genuinely funny poems, both from her new book -- she has some poems about her little dog Percy that are just priceless. One of them involves Donald Rumsfeld. Oh, go to the library and look it up for yourself. :) The other thing that surprised me was that the instant she stepped behind the podium, she nearly disappeared. Apparently, um, she's not particularly tall. Whenever she was looking down at her paper, we could pretty much just see her from the nose up. When she looked up, we could see her whole face. It was like watching a poetry reading by Kilroy Was Here. I spent a lot of time listening with my eyes closed, because it was actually kind of distracting!

I asked the friends I'd driven up with whether they wanted to go get in line for autographs, and none of them did. I hadn't been able to decide if I wanted to buy a book and get it signed or not -- I kind of did and kind of didn't -- so when my friends weren't interested, I decided to bag the autograph line and just head home. Then I saw the line. Holy cow, I bet it was going to take her at least 90 minutes to get through that whole thing.

It's funny -- the reading, and the entire atmosphere surrounding it, made me think of so much I love about the poetry world and so much I can't stand about it, all at once. So many people there were loving the reading, were so happy to be there; it was a really nice atmosphere. And while Oliver's never been a lesbian activist or anything, she's never been closeted either (that I'm aware of) -- most or all of her books have been dedicated to her partner, who died last year -- and frankly it gives me a little bit of a warm fuzzy anytime I see someone who's not straight getting that much adoration. (Call it the Martina Navratilova Effect.) And, yes, I do like much of her work. I won't deny that her work is generally more comforting and reaffirming than challenging, and if that means her work fails by a certain set of definitions, well all right then; working from another set of expectations, her work is a rousing success. But the whole poetry-superstar thing makes me so uncomfortable, and I don't think it is good for poetry.

Anyway, my thoughts are muddled, and I am tired. It's raining outside, and Joni Mitchell is singing "My Old Man" on my tv (I love VH-1 Classic). I spent over two hours in a small car with four other people, with at least two different conversations going on at any given moment, and I spent another hour in a very crowded room listening to poetry and being distracted by my own self-indulgent internal mutterings. It's time for me to be quiet for a little while, and then it's time for me to sleep.


Garbo said...

Anne, this is a great write-up of a poetry reading! Seriously, it had the details and the caught-essence feeling of a good Sports Illustrated piece on some team's rise or fall. That's a compliment -- if you did a radio or print review feature weekly, I would subscribe in a second. "Readings Roundup," maybe, or "From Where I Sit," or something like that.

I saw Melissa Ferrick here at a little club because I'd seen her at the Michigan Women's Music Festival, where she rocked the crowd of thousands. There were maybe 150 people, or 200, at the club here. Melissa was really funny and engaging.

I have had Melissa's feeling while she looked at Ani DeFranco onstage. I try not to think about Augusten Burroughs or Bret Easton Ellis and their success too much, or my blood pressure rises a dozen points. I'm standing at a card table, trying to get art-fair passersby to look at my book, and they are already looking up the street at the frozen-custard stand, and then I see who sells a jillion books and all I can do is sigh and adjust my display stand a little. What are ya gonna do?

Pamela said...

Anne, I have had the same reaction. When we had our last MFA reading, the crowd was so sparse, but then I looked around and almost all of my students were there. I was thrilled by that. I hope Melissa (and you) remember it's quality, not quantity that ultimately matters. (And some of my students still think you wrote "Sestina," so you're famous across state lines, which sounds sort of, er, prurient.).

Thanks for the post--it was a great writeup.

cornshake said...

thanks for the recap--I've never seen her live and have always wanted to...

Robert said...

I must admit I, too, have always wanted to hear her read live. I don't necessarily think the poet-as-rock-star phenomenon is necessarily a bad thing, and particularly in the case of Oliver (not just because she has so-called alternative lifestyle, but because she's such a strong poet). The fact that even one poet has surfaced enough to draw significant attention from the mainstream is, to me, heartening.

Anne said...

Thanks, all. I hope my post didn't sound too anti-Oliver, because taken on its own merits, it was a fine reading (despite the too-tall podium!). She was terribly unassuming and seemed quite happy to be there, and she read for a full hour -- longer than I'd expected, though it didn't feel overly long. And who knows, maybe some of her audience will spill over onto other poets. It would be nice, for sure.