Sunday, April 1, 2012

Stuart Ross and Bruce Kaufmann on open mikes

There's a lot to think about in this recent post on Bloggamooga. Stuart Ross, firmly on the 'open mikes are painful necessary evils' camp, respectfully and engagingly disagreeing with Bruce Kaufmann, open-mike organizer at the Artel in Kingston.

I think I pretty firmly stand in Bruce's camp on this one: but I like the question Stuart poses, which is, "How does one create a supportive testing ground for new writers and at the same time also encourage quality work?"

I think the answer is, you create a supportive testing ground for new writers. And you don't expect that everyone will bring quality work. How I see the e- and self-publishing world evolving is very similar to how I've seen open mikes work: eventually, over time, you see a natural filtering, a survival of the fittest, taking place. People learn where to go for the sort of thing they like. The challenge for the people running open mikes, or any other test-flight area of the arts, is to remember that change, evolution, and selection are out of their immediate control in these cases. So is 'quality.' If your open mike becomes known as the sort of place where a particular kind of poetry is appreciated, then it will trend toward that kind of poetry, in much the same way as a poetry slam, where you see rankings and winners among the poets, will often trend toward a style of poetry that holds popularity at the moment. But these things might change. It's a very fluid process. And also - not everything that one audience thinks is good will go over so well with another.

Stuart says: "What I see happen at open mics is that everyone gets wild applause. In fact, sometimes the most inexperienced writer gets the most applause. Is it possible that open mics reward bad writing much of the time?"

I think I disagree that applause necessarily encourages bad poetry. I think most of the encouraging or discouraging that happens in an open mike happens in the conversations afterward. Also, where one open mike might be a safer ground for new writers - applauding wildly for the person who's had the guts to get up and read their work - not all are, in my experience. It's up to the individual poet whether they want to go to another open mike, with the same poem, and maybe get a lukewarm reception because of the kind of audience that's there. And, if that happens, it's up to that poet to decide whether they give a flying crap what the audience at Poetry Series Y thinks, and whether they want to go back and keep reading for Poetry Series X, or want to examine their poetry and see if maybe Poetry Series Y's audience has a point. At that point, ability to grow and a thick skin come in handy.

But... it's still not the responsibility of the people running the open mike to decide. It's up to that poet, who either says, "sure, I'll go find out what Poetry Series Y has to teach me and see if I want to incorporate it into my practice" or says, "Hell with Series Y, they love my stuff at Series X and I'm okay with that, that's all I really want."

Nor is it the responsibility of the audience at any of the series, really, to encourage or discourage the poet. The audience's job is to listen with respect, have an opinion, and react however they would like to. Again, if they don't like the poem they don't have to clap: if they don't like a majority of the stuff at a series they don't have to keep going. If they're willing to listen to a lot of possibly rough or raw poetry, because of the potential in it, they'll stay and clap for the brave poet who gets on stage shaking. If they're not, they'll go to another series and encourage the poets whose work they respect and look up to.

You can't dictate the quality of the work or the ear of the audience. All you can do is provide the space. Maybe, by inviting people whose work you like to read in the open mike, and as featured readers, you can demonstrate what sort of stuff you think is interesting and valuable in poetry. But you can't dictate what your audience will take away from it. All you can do is provide the microphone. Things will shape up as they may, and in accordance with your personality and hosting style, with the people you draw in to listen and the people you draw in to perform.

The main thing is, without the audience who listens to the first time poets, and the raw, and the rough poets, where will the audience and the poets in all the other, higher 'quality' series come from? This is a self-taught art, in which you have to find your own way, meet your own mentors, and teach yourself all the new tricks, and everyone has to start somewhere. Everyone, at some point, has got up and shared a bad poem. And if they had not done that, they would not keep doing it, and there would be far, far, fewer poets in the world.