Posts Tagged ‘poetry reading’

Happy 100th Birthday, Shakespeare & Co

This week marks the 100th birthday of Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris. Shakespeare & Co. is an amazing place, both for its beautiful interiors with floor to ceiling wooden bookshelves and for its long history as a meeting place for Modernist writers. It was also the scene of one of the most magical literary evenings of my life, when I talked my way into giving a reading, though I’m sure it is a long-forgotten blip in the history of this legendary store.

The date was September 19, 1988, and I was a young poet, just two years out of college. I had quit my job in Chicago and taken the summer off to travel through Europe, first visiting my brother in Poland just before the fall of Communism (which we had no idea would happen within the year), then visiting friends in Denmark and Belgium, arriving in time for the marriage of  Frank Van de Steen and Sabine Daeninck. It was an earlier and safer (or more naive) time, so much of my travel was by hitch-hiking, and I stayed in hostels when I wasn’t visiting friends.

According to an old journal I found, I had been in Paris for three days. I had already walked all over the city, seen the Louvre and the Rodin museum, and been to Notre Dame. I’d also been to Shakespeare & Co., though the first time I went, the shop was closed because it was Saturday. I lent 100 francs to an Austrian couple I met whose car had been broken into, though I didn’t really believe their story and I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t show up at our meeting place to return the money. But that might have been part of the reasong I ended up back at Shakespeare & Co.

Earlier in the day, I had been brash enough to try to arrange a reading there with a rightfully dubeous George Whitman and had talked him into at least considering me for a date in October. But when I went back later in the afternoon after waiting around Notre Dame plaza for my Austiran ‘friends,’ I overheard that the American poet whose reading I had planned to attend had to cancel. Being young and unabashed, I volunteered to step in. I had published a few poems in magazines, performed in Chicago, and even had a poem on the radio. I probably made it all sound a lot more impressive than it was, and they agreed to let me read. After all, people were about to arrive, so why not?

With that decided, I went down to the Seine to find a quiet place to practice my poems and get prepared. The reading was after hours, upstairs above the bookstore. As I recall maybe a dozen people stayed for the reading. I’m sure some went home disappointed that the poet they expected hadn’t shown up. But according to my journal, the reading went very well. Those who stuck around had a good time, there was a lot of energy in the room, and we had a great discussion afterwards when several of us went out for drinks.Of course, I didn’t get paid (other than a glass or two of wine) and didn’t have any books to sell. It wasn’t my first public reading, but it was my first and so far only international one, and it was in Paris in one of the most famous bookstores in the world.

The Joys of Signing

CewDC4BWEAAyGYYSomeone at yesterday’s book launch for Barrier Island Suite asked me what the pay-off is for publishing a book of poetry. I didn’t have to think about that much! My first thought was “events like this.” Writing a book in isolation is one thing, getting poems in magazines and working with your publisher to put the book together is another, but having a reason to get together with friends and colleagues — even strangers — is the best part. It is what keeps you going through all the other stages.

Most poets don’t expect to make a fortune selling books, though I was thrilled yesterday that we sold quite a few and I signed for over an hour straight, except for when I was reading. But even that thrill is less about the financial rewards than it is about getting the book in the hands of others. Poetry lives and breathes when it is read aloud in public. It thrives when books pass from one hand to another, when it sparks discussions, when someone reads it late at night or early in the morning. A book is never finished until it is read. Writing a book is that long process of honing language until it is ready to go out in the world. Publishing a book is the long process of making a product that can do the job of taking those poems out into the world. Both are rewarding. But the pay-off is when the poems are in the ears and hands of others. Talking to people and signing their books as you pass the poems on is the greatest reward.

Oh yes, and if you’re lucky there’s also cake…CewDC4lWIAAYWRF

Good Poetry Week

Sometimes things go in cycles, and this week my poetry cycle must be on an upswing. First, I heard from The Texas Review that they are accepting 4 new poems, and then I heard from Louisiana Literature Press that the proofs of Down to the Dark River were ready for review. I have one poem in this anthology of Mississippi River poems, and felt blessed to see all the names of other poets I admire in the table of contents, several of whom I have been fortunate to meet over the years.

Then tonight, I had the good fortune to attend a reading by Terrance Hayes, who is arguably one of the best poets writing today. The reading was fabulous — Hayes made the reading comfortable and accessible, as if we were all just sitting around in a living room talking poetry, not in an auditorium. I loved that he talked syntax with he crowd of mostly students, and that he told about coming to poetry through art and basketball — a basketball scholarship took him to university, where he first studied art before landing on poetry — and that he counted rap and hip-hop artists, as well as Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, and John Keats among his early influences. I’m sure he inspired more than a few people in the room to follow their creative bent.

All this reminds me how important it is to cultivate the good creative times when you can. Go to readings or other art shows. Write and follow your creative muse as far and as long as you can. Be around other writers whenever possible. Like any cycle, there will come times when you feel like you’re writing on your own or that the successes are few and far between. Let the momentum of the good weeks carry you through the dry times.