I’ve been to a few poetry and book readings over the past year. The ones I’ve attended took place in two different places. The first being on the UNI campus and the second is at the James Hears Center for the Arts, both in Cedar Falls. When it comes to the UNI reading, usually, there are only few people there. It’s sort of sad in a way because its takes place in a decent sized room where there are only a handful of us, the “audience” seated scattered amongst the chairs and the featured speakers were usually pretty good.. Before it begins, the person doing the reading is often making polite conversation with the people that did show up, all the while keeping one eye trained to the door…waiting…always waiting for more people to show up.
The other place I go to (but not for a while. The last time I went it was snowing, so, do the math on that one) is the James Hearst Center for the Arts, just a few blocks from where I live. This place garners a much wider swath of society—from young to old—there are usually about twenty or so people in attendance. At both the UNI readings and at the James Hearst readings, I’ve run into the same bearded gentleman in his early sixties who isn’t fond of showering. He looks like the stereotypical “nutty codger”. He has a beard that’s more salt than pepper. He’s fond of wearing filthy jeans, threadbare flannel, and long underwear tops…no matter what season. While I’m surrounded by people whose dreams of becoming the next T.S. Eliot or Emily Dickens weren’t fulfilled, this bearded guy scans the crowd and invariably gravitates toward me. Don’t ask me why. We hardly look like kindred spirits. I try not to think about why he chooses to talk to me. I’m afraid to wonder. I’m afraid that I’m going to find out that I remind him of the person he was at the age of thirty. If he is the future that I have to look forward to. Is he trying to befriend me? I haven’t made a new friend in over seven years. There’s a painstakingly long interview process before I let you into my circle. Not to mention, I don’t believe a guy who looks like a nineteenth century forty-niner would fit in well with my clique.
A bit of a side note, have you noticed that there is a whole class of middle-aged guys with grey beards, long hair and are of suspect hygiene? All these men seem like alcoholics who would have difficulty holding a steady job. They commute two things, and only two things: thirty-year-old trucks with muffler problems, and thirty-year-old bikes they ride while wearing blue jeans. Alright, I’m going to get off this subject. It’s bumming me out. I feel like I’m describing myself in thirty years… see ya then folks.
The Hearst reading nights feature forty-five minutes of open mic poetry before the featured speaker. Listening to amateur poetry, you deal with damaged individuals who parade their mental maladies before an indifferent audience (much like I do every Friday on this website). Imagine me sitting in the audience as I’m subjected to a hapless, portly man in his fifties who shares a poem he about his deceased mother. Alright, I’m interested—let’s bleed some hearts. But, before the man begins his recitation, he proceeds to hand out Xeroxed sheets of paper that feature the nature trail he was hiking while he mused about his dead mom, and marked on the map, the various locations where each musing took place. It was a nice testament in theory, but glancing at the map while he was describing the marmalade toast she’d make for him before school, I realized that we were going on minute five and we weren’t even to the halfway point of his tedious journey. I only hoped that Nana’s journey across the river of Styx was going quicker.
I’m not good at feigning compliments. While I’m pouring coffee into a Styrofoam cup and eying which sugar cookie I’m going to snag, I can only muster a curt head-nod as the guy with the dead mom lingers by the refreshments table for compliments from any and all strangers who were subjected to his maudlin poem.
Another guy who sometimes attends the readings is who I’ll refer to as “wheelchair guy”. Why? Because he was an Olympic high-jumper in Barcelona ‘92. Just kidding. He’s simply a guy confined to a wheelchair. Wheelchair guy is a guy in his forties who seems irritated and temperamental—the way I imagine most people are who have to sit down for the rest of their lives. He’s often short and dismissive with people who try to make pleasant conversation with him, but not with me because I don’t talk to him. I realize that he’s a damaged man (in more ways than one) and attends these readings for the opportunity to share the displeasures that he feels (much like what I do every Friday with this Godforsaken blog). This guy attends the UNI college readings where there is no open mic. At one point while we were all sitting dismissively in a semi-circle waiting for more people to show up for the poetry reading, one of the UNI professors asked if anyone would like to share any of their own poetry. We all scanned the room with our arms collectively crossed, seeing if anyone was going to step up. Then the professor said, “Wheelchair guy (he didn’t really say that, I just know his real name) I know you write poetry. Would you like to share any?” Wheelchair guy said something like, “No, no…I don’t think so.” “Come on, we’d love to hear something,” the professor urged him once more. Then Wheelchair guy proceeded to mumble that he really didn’t want to, but apparently he did in fact have something because he dug his fingerless gloved hand into his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. But, just as wheelchair guy brandished his paper soul, the UNI professor (not knowing that wheelchair guy was about to share with us his poetic paraplegic plight) said to the featured speaker, “I don’t think any more people are going to show up. You might as well begin.” The featured speaker got up out of her chair and stood before the flickering halogen lamp to begin her reading. Wheelchair guy let out an audible exhale and quickly shoved his sad piece of spiral paper back into his pocket. Sure the featured speaker went on to read her passionate poems, but the most poetic moment of that evening was me watching Wheelchair guy rise to the occasion only to be inadvertently shot down.
It was both awkward and exquisite.