My unrelenting desire to label the millennial generation brings us to a split-level apartment on a Main Street block in Northeastern Connecticut. About a dozen people haphazardly form a circle in the living room. In the center of the room, a goldfish in a glass bowl is suspended from a chandelier hook, nestled tightly in a hand-knotted plant holder. The space is filled with similarly fascinating objects.
Tonight is “poetry night.” Unsurprisingly, these people have come for the promise of poetry and good company. There are two rules.
Firstly, newcomers must share with the others. You could read a poem or a recipe from a cookbook, you might play an instrument or sing a song, really anything from the creative sphere.
The second rule, reiterated promptly after the first volley of applause, “clappers get cut.” This is mostly out of respect for the neighbor in the apartment above, but also has roots in the Beat Generation. How the snapping of one’s fingers shows the reader that they are felt and understood without the piercing interruption of clapping.
Most of the people here are familiar with one another, as bringing others to poetry night is encouraged. They are friends, friends of friends, and so on. The majority is made up of recent college graduates. The count is three English majors, one marine science major, a few college dropouts. There is also a licensed paramedic among us.
My friend by the name of Sheila owns the apartment. She dictates, more or less, how the night goes. Everyone’s identity becomes both clearer and more uncertain when she pulls a hatbox down from a bookshelf. From the box, she removes a bowler hat, one of many antique hats in her collection, and places it on her head as if the hat has a voice—as if to hear whom the hat is speaking to a little more closely. After contemplating for a minute or two, she walks a half circle around the room. She hands it to one of the newcomers and gestures to for him to put it on. She repeats this a dozen times until the tops of everyone’s head is equally old fashioned.
And so it begins. I am particularly excited to hear Sheila’s sister, Kristen, read Shel Silverstein as she always does. I’m surprised when she teams up with another young woman from the group to read carefully choreographed Bob Dylan lyrics from memory. Later, our self-proclaimed authority on Charles Bukowski performs a poem in his characteristic slur. At times the place sounds less like a gathering of like-minded individuals and more like ringside at a boxing event.
For her debut reading, one of the newcomers shares a Sharon Olds piece “I Go Back to May 1937.” As she begins, the certainty of her voice cuts through the racket, deafening everyone to silence. When she reads the lines “they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,/they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are/ innocent, they would never hurt anybody” we are all relating to the poem’s teenagers-turned-parents. We are passing satisfied looks. We are fervently snapping. The reader has just introduced to us, both herself and Sharon Olds. We will not be forgetting about either of them in the foreseeable future. The night continues with a magic and absurdity I can hardly describe.
Everyone is happy to be here. Everyone is pleased to be part of this, even though it’s not clear what exactly this is.
I immediately think of the history of writing communities, most notably Greenwich Village or Columbia University in the 1950’s and the cultural orgasm it spawned.
At its most basic level, this kind of community—if we can call it that— fosters strong writing. In this age of incredible egocentrism, it’s essential to remember the importance workshopping and, more simply, the art of reading aloud. How when we’re not doing these things, it’s easy to fool oneself into thinking that a piece of writing is perfect, that it’s exempt from the checks and balances of established literature. I fear a new generation of writers with much potential will be wasted in feel-good self publishing platforms with communities that are too afraid to give honest and difficult criticism. Such necessary feedback is required for the betterment of your own work and the work of your peers.
I am not saying that I’ve discovered the next literary scene to sweep the nation. Nor am I saying that all the nonsense of poetry night is ever truly necessary. We are, after all, wearing many different hats.
What I am saying is that it all starts somewhere. So why can’t it be here?