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Hear and Now

Open Mic Night at the Raven, and the lost art of listening


This is about open mic readings at the Raven. Open mic means anyone can read, one at a time, I assume. The Raven is a relatively new coffee place down on Broadway. I’ve never been to a Raven reading, but once I heard a man play an electric cello in there. It was a Thursday night and the Raven was fairly deserted. I ordered a caramel fuzzy milk, or whatever it is they’re called. A steamer. I ordered a caramel flavored steamer. I might as well have ordered a hot water bottle for my feet, the mood I was in.

I hunkered down and avoided eye contact with the other patrons, also with the switched-on cellist. There’s a certain embarrassment to being entertained like that, when you can’t hide in a crowd. How to behave, how to respond ... But I quickly realized that this electric cello music was quite beautiful and unidentifiably so; that’s how it struck me. I didn’t know what to make of it, which was nice. Each piece seemed to have a point, a purpose unfolding, but what that purpose was I didn’t have a clue. I started to feel grateful to this musician and wondered if I had any cash left to put into the basket at his feet. His playing allowed me to just relax and stare blankly, occasionally slurping my steamer, as if I were about to be tucked up for the night.

Sometimes I achieve this degree of somnolence at readings and sometimes I stay in the realm of embarrassment. I’m not sure to what extent my reaction has to do with the reader or what’s being read. Readings, it seems to me, are mainly about being read to, which is something few adults experience on a regular basis. Maybe at church—we are read to there—and in classroom situations, at lectures, etc. But all those have a “listen up” aspect to them that readings don’t. I honestly feel—and this is my secret confession—that most of us don’t hear all that much at readings. We don’t hear meaning, we don’t focus on plot. In fact, more than once, I’ve said to myself or my companions—“I can’t wait to read that,” in response to the reading I just heard.

Why was I there in the first place? Well, there’s a support-group aspect to readings in Missoula, in any town. We go to support the work of the reader and acknowledge his or her miserable isolation in his or her art. (And I must admit, the few times I’ve read I’ve felt a near-frenzy of self-fulfillment.) If the reader is famous, or simply well-known, then we go out of curiosity or to show off a little (I have some small thing to do with this world). But the first few times I went to readings I was mostly incredulous, though I was cool about it. I was like Peggy Lee: Is that all ... there is ... to a reading?

I’m not sure what I expected, maybe a bit more explication du texte, OK?

But then if it comes, that seems like cheating. The poets, especially, cheat like hell. They tell us what a poem means, how it came about, even how it should be heard. None of that’s in the book, on the page. There’s only the poem, in self-evident splendor.

Even when (especially when?) poets do that Pause/Unpause thing with their voices, to indicate line breaks, I almost always get more from a poem on the page. (Exceptions to this are the readings of Dylan Thomas and, coupled with them, my memories of Leonard Robinson’s own densely-textured performances that seemed to acknowledge my acquaintance with the recorded Thomas originals.)

Meaning matters on the page, but at a reading is it the point? I won’t go so far as to say that a reader could be reading from the phone book and still please me, but I will say that I have learned to enjoy readings despite (because of?) my concentration difficulties. I hear—and remember—only snippets. Brief, disembodied phrases. The big, live, blue, birth/sailing/through a window.

Sometimes being at a reading is a little bit, for me, like being at the hairdresser. I love to have someone else mess with my hair and my head; I feel weak with receptivity, simply that. The end goal—or actual result—of either experience is no big deal.

Recently I heard a poem read aloud about a demolition derby (such club-footed beauty) and I was thinking about this topic of readings, and hairdressers, and church, and bedtime, so I asked myself: Is a poetry reading also like a demolition derby? And I decided, emphatically, Yes. Both go round and round, with much heart and few surprises, and we are, everyone, held inside it, we’re held inside the event, that’s the point, even though we’re paying half attention, registering only brief images and twists of experience, we’re in a brightly lit place, or maybe a half-lit world, where meaning creeps around the periphery, as we’re all held in just sound.
Open mic readings at The Raven Cafe, 130 East Broadway, will be held Wednesday, Dec. 15 and the first and 15th of every month, beginning at 8 p.m.

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