People aren’t often taught how to deal with failure. Even watching interviews with famous people chat about missteps doesn’t seem to hit home because we never saw that part. Their disappointments seem cute as opposed to career questioning. For writers, failure is most evident on stage. Unlike piles of rejection slips one can stuff in a draw, light on fire, or scrapbook, in front of a crowd, a person has to respond. They must get comfortable with silence or deal with too much noise. This too is true of comedians and is why I sometimes pretend I’m a standup comic rather than a poet. Although maybe it’s because comics are the more socially acceptable of the low-paid artists. If you tell someone you’re a poet, they look confused; say you’re a comic, they fervently discuss Louis CK. Of course, a poet bombing looks rather different than a comic, but that image is fun to examine, and it still explores ideas of failure and heckling that are necessary for any artist.
I’ve read before at really quiet places. I mean, I’ve participated in poetry readings there. I’m not flaunting the various locations I’ve read books in. The libraries I’ve read at included a lot of elderly people just hanging around, picking up back issues of Home & Garden. They wandered into the room I happened to be standing in with a mic and took a seat because why not? I believe those places are worse than one with unattentive crowds because the silence is unhelpful. I can’t tell what lands, what sucks, what’s boring. This setting lacks heckling and thus doesn’t help the artist edit or revise.
At a bar, you get more from the audience even if that “more” is boisterous men not noticing someone is on stage. At least there you can play with the situation a bit, make some jokes, work on your presence. I can’t scold a bunch of men and women in a library who’ve seen war or the depression, failed at marriages or succeeded at drinking problems. They’ve got a few things on me. And I am just not the type of person to pick a fight with an old lady next to a stack of romance novels. Because I’m a good person.
But at a bar, you can pretentiously wave your hand, think psh these are degenerates, call them out on their shit before ordering yourself another shot of Fireball. Or you could play it how I actually did one time: pretend like you’re entering a class of students in conversations, hoping they notice you and shut the hell up, so you don’t need to put hands on hips, tilt your head and murmur, come on, guys. Settle. Settle.
This actually happened one night. I was the first reader at a bar that had not hosted a reading series before. The people ordering drinks in the back either didn’t notice me or didn’t care enough to pretend. The fact that I didn’t do anything except continue on reading taught me that next time I should. I should’ve at least tried. And maybe that would’ve lead to heckling. But that could’ve been a good thing. Heckling would really solidify the struggling artist image I’m cultivating here. More importantly, it would help in the editing process. Whether that’s of my poem, what I read that night, or how I act on stage.
I also would just enjoy experiencing a poet being heckled because I haven’t seen that before. I want to know what that looks like. People shouting: that shit doesn’t even rhyme! with raised fists of fury as they sip soy lattes in the back of an independent Brooklyn bookstore. Or maybe it would be more akin to a rock show like some drunk asshole shouting Freebird but instead Give me a love poem! I guess they wouldn’t want a love poem. Most people don’t shout for the ballad. The hit of poetry then needs to be funny or bubbly. Light verse, if you will. Basically, shit people don’t have to think too deeply about on the spot, or if they’re really lucky, ever.
The closest I came to seeing a poet being heckled was that same reading. I witnessed a guy look one of the prospective readers that night up and down. Eying her notebook, he muttered, “That better be comedy.” When he said this, he was standing almost shoulder-to-shoulder with her, but she didn’t hear him. I watched this man utter his deeply felt opinion anyway, but as his last syllable fell, I could see he felt like a jerk. As if he wasn’t taught the option to just say nothing at all. Or as if he hadn’t discovered Twitter yet—the place to anonymously be a jerk. When I looked in his direction, he quickly turned his head. If she had heard him or if I engaged with him at all, it could have potentially been an interesting interplay. It could have led to some needed failure and discourse.
These two scenarios—the too-quiet library and the poetry-hating bar— could combine to create a true test for the poet. Yes, a library with a bar in it, drunk messes on one side, a sleeping audience on the other. The poet (me) stands in the middle unsure about reading that poem on mortality or fucking. I wouldn’t want to offend either side of the crowd. If I go too serious with the drunks, they might actively, ostensibly turn away—the poetry equivalent of the ‘boo.’ I could consider the sex poem instead. Bars. Sex. Great, but I, of course, look to the other side of the room and picture my grandma sitting in the crowd, crossing herself, using various languages to say whore. This dilemma could produce some of my best work yet.
If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere. (Cue the song.) Or more aptly, if I can bomb there and go back up to do the same thing the next night, then I’ve made it in another way. That’s what I’d say in my interview anyway. Because I want that reminder. I want to be heckled, to bomb, to give my poetry some high stakes. Experience live editing. I want to stand up poeting or fall down trying.