Being based in Spain, I don’t get to that many English poetry readings or open mike events, so the recent opportunity to go to several in a short period of time has been really interesting.
The two poetry venues I know best are the Torriano Meeting House and the Poetry Café, both in London. Both are almost airless, ill-designed rooms which are over-full with fifty people in the audience. Then again, from what I’ve seen, they don’t often get that many. Certainly not for the whole evening.
Last Sunday, at 7:25pm there were barely twenty people in the Torriano hall. The event started a few minutes later than the scheduled 7:30 and readers from the floor had to contend with late arrivals knocking to be admitted and shuffling plastic bags and coats and umbrellas as they tried to squeeze into the scattered empty spaces. When you’ve only got time to read one poem, it’s a bit annoying to have it drowned out by a friends reunited event in the audience. Still, it was a good turnout: by 8:00pm there was standing room only.
That was the case, too, at a recent Unplugged (open mike) session at the Poetry Café. And, again, poems were read to the accompaniment of creakings, shufflings, rustlings and reunions.
But at both both venues there is a short break about half way through the proceedings. And afterwards, audience numbers are considerably reduced.
At the Poetry Café (and possibly elsewhere?) those who leave after their own readings are referred to as Hollywoods – presumably because they’re in it only for their personal fame and glory. I particularly don’t understand their attitude when there are featured readers after the break.
It seems the only way to fill a room for a poetry reading is to allow people to read their own work. And once they have done so, they want to get away as soon as possible. (The extreme of this was illustrated by the chap who discovered his name wasn’t on the list of readers at Torriano on Sunday so demanded his money back and left. He was prepared to pay to read to an audience; he wasn’t prepared to pay to listen to other readers.)
It’s often said that more people write poetry than actually read it, and the Hollywoods appear to confirm this. I’m wondering whether it’s a mistake to call these events “readings” as it puts the focus in the wrong place. If we began to refer to them as “listenings”, perhaps the audience would realise that their attendance may imply some kind of interest in what other people have to say.