Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Great Nomadic Peoples: at a poetry reading

One of my early demonstrations of independence from my family was in a movie theater with my mom and three older sisters. My father would have stayed home with a glass of Scotch, Bach sheet music, a James Bond novel, Nick and Nora Charles on The Million Dollar Movie.

Usually, the minute lights dimmed, we five became alert to the possible intrusion of extraneous sounds: a piece of Juicy Fruit being unwrapped, a too-loud engagement with molars and popcorn, a whispered comment. We were guardians of the quiet, Swiss guards for hush, lookouts ever vigilant against intrusions on our concentration.

The screen with its handsome flickering images was all. Double features (that's how long ago this was) were to be our atmosphere, landmass, weather system, internal and external organ. And if we heard a fatal crinkle of a candy wrapper we'd have to move. Sometimes my mother or a sister would venture a stern, "Shush!" but that held no truck with the Milky Way lover. Nor should it have. Candy and popcorn are inalienable rights. A movie ticket is a bearer bond for sweet and salty joys.

So the Hershey Bar would be unwrapped by a happy patron sitting behind us, a handful of popcorn noisily consumed and, as if a starting shot had been sounded for the greyhounds, my family would be off and running to another row, a quieter row, a perfect row.

I found moving from one row to another, having to yet again judge the height of the people in front -- potential blockades to Sidney Poitier or Elizabeth Taylor -- tiresome, and not cool (whether or not that was the word I used when I was thirteen).

My rebellion? I stayed put. After years of moving from seat to seat, I refused to collude with my mother and sisters in making fools of ourselves. I'd frown. I'd cross my arms over my unformed chest. I'd say, "No."

And watch their tribute to the great nomadic peoples of the world as they moved, sometimes several times in one movie. I'd hear evaluative whispers, especially if my oldest sister, who'd had the most pressure from circumstance and family, was in from San Francisco. The irony of their creating distraction -- when in fact they fled distraction-- escaped them.

And how does this relate to poetry readings? Well, I was at one today (a wonderful reading at the Bowery Poetry Club). The audience was attentive and the poets strong. Personages in my row, however, were not practiced reading attendees.

We're not talking teenagers (capable of anything). These people were older than me (hard to believe). And uh-huhing and yessing and commenting. I kept my tongue. But then my friend S-- was up and this nice lady next to me became not simply a bit distracting but, well, chatty. It's as if she were a Patriots fan sitting with six other Patriots fan in a den or sports bar (with the television on and all sorts of processed snacks hot and steaming); she began narrating the events in an unaware (bless her) stage whisper.

"He seems a bit nervous." "Oh, yes, I've met his mother. She's like that, you know, just like in that poem." And, as S-- began reading the last poem of his set, she turned to me to ask, "Oh, how do you know him? Are you a student or a poet or---" At which point my genetic material took over. Not the nomadic impulse--this was a full house and fleeing to another seat was not an option; no, the "Would you please be quiet" (whispered) impulse asserted. She became quiet.

Talking and silence, cell phones, involuntary and unconscious oohs and ahas, small comments, cheers, boos, laughter, bartenders -- they are all part of a poetry reading. There's no conclusion to be drawn from the above except I'm a silly goose. Yes, she was outsized. But I keep getting annoyed and it is not doing me any good. I want the calm of the great nomadic peoples of the world, to be able to pick up tent in silence -- but only if really very necessary.

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