I continue to be troubled by what I witnessed at an off-site reading at AWP in Seattle, WA. At this event that brought together musicians and writers, one male poet who I’ll call Male Poet, through every aspect of his performance displayed a grotesque misogyny.
To begin with a minor offense, he read for far too long. After 8-minute readings from three other poets, Male Poet took the stage and read an entire heroic sonnet crown: fifteen poems. This took at least twice as long as any other reader, though it may have felt especially long for reasons I’ll explain.
Male Poet took as one of his repeating lines something to the effect of “she sees her father’s cock.” I took a class as an undergraduate (ten years ago) on the Old Testament, so I’m aware of a literary precedent of children seeing their parents nude. But Male Poet went on to use a variation of this line as his looping sonnet refrain more than once, so that the air in the gallery was thick with “father’s cock.”
If that sounds gross, it’s because it was.
About two-thirds into the performance, one sonnet emerged as particularly preoccupied with shocking the audience. Male Poet proclaimed: “I sucked her brown pussy” “after three Molly,” and followed this up with what can only be described as a thundersnow of jizz imagery.
As I sat on the floor cloudy with cold medicine, attempting to mentally prepare to read my own work about 20 minutes later (subbing in for a reader who couldn’t make it), I wondered how the fuck I was supposed to bounce up onto a stage after being made to feel so incredibly uncomfortable, unwelcome, and disrespected. As a woman in this space packed with 100 listeners, an anxious claustrophobia crept up in me. Later, every woman–that’s 100% of the women–I talked to after the event ended mentioned something about this poet, ranging from “what the fuck was that” to “I feel violated.” I spoke to four or five women individually, independently, and each one commented critically on Male Poet’s performance.
Another poet read later, followed by me. Several musicians also performed, and overall the event was lovely. But just one performance stuck with me, and I continue to work to discover the reason for my frustration. When women are catcalled while walking in the city, consensus says we should pop in our earbuds and ignore it, consider it the cost of freedom. But at an event, we can’t always walk away or tune out. For me, I was present at this reading as a small press co-sponsor of the event, too. Had my sense of duty been eclipsed by my discomfort, exiting the room would not have been easy (nor subtle) for how large a crowd was present. I felt trapped.
What is the purpose of creating an off-site event, indeed a small press publishing community for poetry, if it only reproduces the same work available in mainstream venues? The work Male Poet performed was in many ways typical. It seemed to set out to employ a traditional form in a new way with contemporary diction (see “pussy,” “Molly”), but what is innovative, I wonder, about formal poetry objectifying women? I conclude: not much. Indeed, nothing.
I go to a poetry reading hoping to hear something new. And perhaps that is where the offense truly lies; at an event that nurtured many forms of experimental work (both literature and music), Male Poet’s work was boring and lazy, offensive in its default, familiar language about women’s bodies. Everyday misogyny–ho hum. We don’t need to travel across the continent to get a dose of that because it’s available everywhere.
Krystal Languell was born in South Bend, Indiana. Two chapbooks and a full-length collection of poetry are forthcoming: LAST SONG (dancing girl press, 2014), BE A DEAD GIRL (Argos Books, 2014) and GRAY MARKET (Coconut, 2015). FASHION BLAST QUARTER was published as a poetry pamphlet by Flying Object in 2014.
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