Where Poetry Lives

“Where do poems live?” is a harder question than “Why is the sky blue?” “It depends”  may be the most accurate answer, but a live reading never did a poem any harm, and many are only alive when read aloud.

I know where screenplays live. They live on the screen – where the film is. The script itself is a demo version of what the film might be, and screenwriters have to be able to value a script as a script. Novelists published and unpublished have the pleasure of calling a work complete. Of course they’d love to see a stack of hard covers at a bookstore, but a PDF on an iPad is the same kind of experience as a student reading a used copy of Hard Times the night before her European History 102 exam, or at least the distinction is tiny compared with the ways we experience poetry.

The novel, I guess, created a planet full of people with rich psychological lives, the place where most literary thought lives being the interaction of page and eyeballs. My father would have turned 83 yesterday, and he rarely read books but could spend hours reading newspapers cover to cover with the same solitary exploration. I wonder at his thoughts on the civil war in Liberia, just like I wonder what my wife thinks of the row of George R.R. Martin novels on my bookshelf at home. He rarely talked about issues, but if asked could give you an informed opinion, inflected by his own experience growing up with “the war.”

There’s a famous story about Augustine of Hippo meeting Archbishop Ambrose of Milan. Neither one of them were saints yet – Augustine wasn’t even a Christian yet – and he was awed by the fact that Ambrose could read without moving his lips! To Augustine, who was no dummy, it was revolutionary that literature could live in the eyeball-page axis. To him and presumably most people, the written word was just shorthand for where literature really lived, spoken aloud.

bridge poem

The Whitney Bridge in Minneapolis is better known as the John Ashberry Bridge for the poem along its span.

It made Ambrose and his weird new faith alluring, to have a psyche and a conscience so private. This was the year 400, and already we were on that slippery slope to virtual reality helmets.

Poetry lives a double life, on the page and in the spoken word. Poems live on monuments, and some get domesticated for service at weddings and eulogies, but mostly they live being read aloud in small groups. Some friends of mine get together every once in a while just to have some drinks and read poems…at home, where we can control the audio. It’s slightly gauche in this setting to read your own work, at least before you’ve introduced some other published, contemporary poetry or dropped a few classics on the group.

Hearing poems made me write poems, and from this I got drafted to read with a group called the Verbal Supply Company, which hosts quarterly readings, usually at a bar called Halyards, not far from my house in Brooklyn. This Monday we’re moving to the Upper West Side for an evening. The group is celebrating its fourth year, so we’re all just doing extra short sets, and this time around many of the writers will be doing excerpts from memoirs and longer-form fiction. I’ll be doing some poems.


A previous Verbal Supply Company reading being called to order (photo by Brad Hamilton).


“Where do poems live?” is above all a practical question, to the person reading his or her poems. An article from 2014, by a poet named Rich Smith in Seattle, exhorting poets to stop using “the poet voice” keeps getting recycled online. It’s a reason people avoid readings: the dullness of readers, most of whom aren’t in fact performers, emphasizing the cadence and clarity of their work at the expense of any “Shazam!”

I try to be sensitive to that and give it some spoken-English life, but I can also relate to poets trying to honor their poems as literature, to insist on it having some life on the page the way a chapter of a novel does. We can’t help adding a dose of Saint Ambrose.

In its four years, the Verbal Supply Company has insisted that its readers come to a “rehearsal,” and guess what? The readers are more focussed, and the excerpts or poetry more thoughtfully read, a step closer to a theater showcase than an open mic night. When deciding, “Where does this piece live” at least a writer makes a conscious choice.

Past readings are archived online on the VSC website. So you can open a beer and listen at home. Tip your bartender. The third from the top, “Not Yet Fully Monetized” from last summer, is a good one to start with. (If you’re partial to morehastohappen, you can skip to my few poems at the very end, at 1 hour and 8 minutes.)

The Banality of People

Many days I get up and turn on the internet machine and don’t want to be complicit in its hyper-tribalism, or the thousand shocks your individual conscience suffers if you stray from the movie times and museum hours pages. The internet promised breath-taking horizons of information, but social media presents them to us through prisms whose value  and accuracy we question at our own peril. Messages with any nuance, that pay respects to ethical gray areas, get shredded by rhetorical yes-no questions.

Today, I’m guessing Leslie Rasmussen feels the same. She’s the drummer for an underground rock trio of sisters from Dayton, Ohio called The Good English. The Good English’s website is down right now, and a web search about it shows a series of similar news items: Show cancelled. Show cancelled. Dropped from the bill.


Rasmussen happened to grow up in a suburb of Dayton, and knew a guy named Brock Turner since elementary school. When Turner got convicted of the rape at Stanford this spring, Rasmussen wrote a letter to Judge Aaron Persky to vouch for Turner’s character, to try making a distinction between Turner’s crime and a woman “getting kidnapped and raped as she is walking to her car,” to blame the crime on binge drinking of both perp and victim, and to ask for leniency. Why? Because that’s what friends do.

After the sentence was announced, the extraordinary victim’s statement made its way around, a document that will be read and re-read for years, and rightly so. It made people angry and wishing they could do something, and just then Rasmussen’s letter got released (She says she never thought it would be public.), and now people are parsing the lapses in her moral reasoning to try to determine whether she’s fit to play drums at the Rumba Café in Columbus.

It came to my attention this morning because a friend approvingly posted the news that several clubs in Brooklyn that are holding a music fest this weekend have announced that they won’t be letting The Good English play. I guess that was inevitable given the climate full of comments like this: “Please cancel your upcoming performance of rape apologists The Good English. Women are not safe around women who think rape trials are a political stunt.”

“Since when did girl bands start supporting rapists? They are an embarrassment and offense to your line up. I look forward to seeing you’ve resolved the situation, aka dropped ’em,” said one Yelp-esque customer. “I hope your career crash and burns.” “Fuck this band of no-talent rape apologists!” “Who brainwashed them into thinking rape was okay?” “I really hope the Ballroom [Beachland Ballroom & Tavern, in Cleveland] cancels the Good English concert. I love the values of this venue and I know her words can’t possibly align with those values.”

Where do we start unbundling the ironies? What kind of people are we if we need the bar where we throw back a few beers and listen to indie rock to “align with our values”? Do we look to rock and roll – not just rock and roll, its drummers! – for moral guidance? And is it really necessary to heap public shame on a 20-year-old woman in the name of protecting women?

Watching this clip from a show The Good English did in Nashville last year…

…I wonder how my own 20-year-old self would have reacted, to the rape issue, and to Leslie Rasmussen’s letter, not to the music.

At 20, I admit, I’d have joined the shaming. It feels good to be in a mob. At least it’s something you can do when you’re on the political losing end, and people who take women’s rights seriously do take the Stanford verdict (a lenient sentence for a privileged defendant) as a big loss. So what do we do? We purify the tribe by ostracizing those who’ve stepped out of line. We can’t change the sentence, but we can register our disapproval by preventing a drummer who put her friendship before social justice from taking the stage in Greenpoint.

By 25 I’d have had a deeper answer. I’d have heard enough hard luck stories, had morning coffee with mentally ill people enough times, and had a few epiphanies in theaters, cinemas, and yes, rock clubs to know that life is complicated. It isn’t right, I’d have reasoned – I mean, the victim was unconscious, after all – but they are childhood friends, and you’ve got to make some allowances for that, and she didn’t think it was public, so where’s the shame button for people who violate trust by leaking documents?

This many years later I see one big difference: when I was 20 there was no internet! Typing a letter to the editor was a real pain in the ass, and the public reaction time allowed for a lot more breathing room. There was political correctness, to be sure, and a pack mentality that set in extra hard when scrambling for consolation prizes, but the mechanism for creating that pack was a lot less efficient, and its effects less absolute, than it is today.

I’m guessing that by changing their band name The Good English will figure out some creative path forward from this, and I wish them a good time playing some rock and roll at home this weekend. Surrounded by their sisters. And most of all I wish them time.