When I first started producing poetry shows, this was my format: in a two hour block, I had 5 poets read for two sets of 10 minutes each with a 15–20 minute break between. It worked, or at least the feedback from the poets was that it worked. As the show (dubbed “Don McIver & Friends” by the venue) progressed I kept noticing that I would lose audience at the break. So I adjusted to a 12 minute set and an 8 minute set but people still split at the break. For a variety of reasons, after 3 years, I switched from the above format to the traditional 2 hour Open Mike-Feature-Slam format and we kept going until the venue went out of business. When I switched to the new format a lot of the audience left at that break too. To be honest, not everybody left at break, but enough people left that I tinkered with the schedule. If given a break, many of the audience would leave after about an hour. Recently I realized that I had been asking the wrong question when I asked, “How can I hold on to them longer so they hear more poetry before leaving?” When I should’ve been asking, “Why are they leaving after about an hour?”
That seems an obvious question, but there’s a lot of history here to support why I chose what I chose. Without fail, almost all of the shows I’d been to, up to this point, were two hours long, and many of them quite longer. And I think the planning was this: movies are two hours long, most plays run about two hours (if not a bit shorter) and most good concerts are at least two hours long and poetry shows are just as engaging if not more so than that. How can we ask them to pay their hard-earned cash if we don’t entertain them for two hours? There are exceptions to the two hour length of course, but the idea of a two hour show seems to be the norm. Yet, even when people split after an hour, I never once had people come up to me (seeing me somewhere else) and say they paid too much.
We also have some numbers of other events to look at that might actually get us to where we’re going: the average length of the State of the Union since President Lydon Johnson (LBJ) is 50 minutes (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/sou_minutes.php). The news program 60 minutes is actually (subtracting commercials) 46 minutes while a regular situation comedy is 22 minutes. A typical visit to a shrink is 50 minutes. A typical college class (that meets 3 times a week) is 50 minutes while one that meets 2 times a week is 1 hour and 15 minutes. Just typing this makes it seem so obvious. Going to a poetry reading means you have to pay attention like listening to a speech, watching a news program, getting psychotherapy, and attending a class.
But I don’t think it’s just the shows. I think the format of literary magazines work against that too. When V.B. Price asked me to curate the poetry section of his online venture called the New Mexico Mercury, I told him I thought the way poetry was being delivered actually worked against people enjoying it. I thought that having too many poems at one time only catered to the audience that loved poetry. What about the audience that might be interested in poetry or the audience that didn’t “understand” poetry? So I argued that we too often give people who might be a little wary of poetry too big of a dose. It’s intimidating. It’s like we are saying, “Hi. Come and take your poetry medicine.” Here’s this art form that is probably the most condensed, packed form of writing, and we give them one poem after another. Now I know not everybody reads them all in one sitting, and I know that when I buy a book of poems I rarely read every poem. But if you have something with the publication frequency of a magazine and you pack it full of poetry aren’t you suggesting to people that they sit down and read it all? And how often do I have the time to do exactly that? Reading poetry sometimes feels like something I have to do, not something I want to do.
So how do I, in my own limited way, restore poetry as an art form where people want to partake of it? How do I get more than just the die-hard fans to enjoy it? Of course, I could also talk about what is called “Poetry” nowadays and while the urge to create it has never really gone away, the divide between poetry and “spoken word,” between poetry and “prose,” between poetry and “rap,” between poetry and “lyrics,” between poetry and “narrative” has grown into a mighty chasm. Admittedly, I find myself staking out specific claims, exercising my “cultural capital” to maintain my position as a poet, a public person, a connoisseur of art, a culture maker, etc. and really spinning that my definition of poetry is really the right one. But it’s not, and I am not making that argument here. There are enough different types of poetry being created and enough celebrated historical models to suggest that poetry can be spoken word; poetry can be prose; poetry can be rap; poetry can be lyrics; and poetry can be narrative.
I am making the argument that we, the poets and producers of poetry shows and magazines, over-program. We give them too much poetry at one time and ignore that poetry is really the cinnamon to all the other spices. I’ll beg your indulgence and say that television shows are the salt, movies are the black pepper, music is the particular spice you need for a specific dish so it is sometimes chile powder, sometimes cumin, sometimes oregano, sometimes saffron, etc. but poetry is cinnamon. Too much of it at one time will make you gag (literally and metaphorically) but when it’s sprinkled in the right dish in the right proportions it’s amazing.
You can find me sprinkling cinnamon every week at Sunday-Chatter in only a 10 minute set between sets of classical music; you can find me sprinkling cinnamon at the Poets & Writers Film Festival in only one poem before the previews of a movie; you can find me sprinkling cinnamon at live music shows in only one poem right before the band’s set break or right before they come back. And, occasionally, you’ll find me hunting down the right venue, getting the right combination of poets in a show that’s just an hour long where we’ll be having our cake and eating it too.