About 17 years ago (as near as I can recall — sometime in late 1999 or early 2000) I did a reading in Worcester, MA that started as a kind of artistic challenge and turned into something much larger, at least for me.
The concept: do a feature that consisted of a set of poems that would only be read once and never again. Seemed simple enough at first, But as I worked on the set for that first feature, I began to learn something about the nature of what we do as poets and the idea began to expand.
It became something I call a “rip up reading.” After it was done, I didn’t think I’d ever do it again.
In 2009, I did it again in Manchester, NH.
Last night I did it for what I am pretty sure will be the last time ever in Portland, ME, for a gathering of storytellers.
Keep the nature of the show secret. Don’t share the poems with anyone, or the nature of the show itself with anyone but the host prior to the show. Nothing online, no workshopping — nothing.
Write the set. This takes a while, because if you’re going to do this, you need to have poems that you have a significant amount of blood and investment in — they have to be at least good, and hopefully it’s the best work you’re capable of. In all three cases, it was a set of eight or nine poems. Already, I don’t recall for sure. Age has made the porosity of my memory worse than ever; usually a curse, in this case a blessing.
Before the feature, print one copy of the set, then wipe out the file for it on the computer, so there’s only one copy of the poems in existence.
At the start of the show, ask for everyone in attendance to shut off anything they can use to make a record of the performance. Cameras, cell phones, video, etc. Gotta keep up with the technology. There was some sketching last night, but I let that slide; no good reason, just felt somehow OK.
Ask for an audience member to volunteer to help you during the set. Don’t explain why, but assure them they don’t have to do anything on stage; they just need to sit up front.
Explain what you’re doing (I’ll explain the rationale below in more detail) — that you’ll be reading a set of poems that no one’s ever seen or heard before, or will again. The set last night addressed the political moment — but more in a sense of the spiritual aspects of the moment. I’ll not say more than that about it.
In all three cases, I opened and closed the set with poems that didn’t fit the bill, as a way of ritually easing in and out of the actual rip-up set. Last night I opened with the poem “Our Dragon” that appears in the “Trumped” anthology, and closed with “Radioactive Artist,” an oldie that just seemed to fit (and felt timely as it references the Hanford Reservation, site of the recent nuclear waste accident).
Explain the volunteer’s role — that as each poem is completed, the volunteer rips the copy of the poem into tiny pieces and puts them into some receptacle — a bag or an envelope (last night, a Ziploc bag) . At the end of the night, the host gets the ripped up copies to do anything with that they want — as long as they don’t reassemble the poems.
Explain, very briefly, the rationale as given below. I use an Ani Difranco quote to help make the point, from “Fuel:” “People / used to make records / as in the record / of an event / The event / of people / making music /in a room.” It’s a way of introducing the idea that the event is precious, the moment is precious. I don’t go into huge detail.
Do the feature.
Last night, we actually did a Q & A with the audience afterward. Never did that before. Most of what we discussed is covered below.
Collapse internally if you’ve done it right.
The rationale behind the rip up reading is two fold.
First and foremost, it is to create a heightened, ritualized sense of the fundamentally ephemeral nature of a live performance. (Hence, the secrecy beforehand and the volunteer, the no recording, etc. It’s a ritual process and requires ritual boundaries to work.) To emphasize that these moments between poet and audience are irreproducible, and that no amount of chapbook reading, video viewing, or listening to a recording can truly recapture what happens in the moment of the night, and that we need to seize the moment and give it our attention — and that goes for performer and audience.
Second, it’s to illustrate the importance of being willing to bring it all out there and then leave it all onstage — both for poet and audience. By its very nature, if you want to do this right, you have to deliver a set of work that has blood in it — personal, revealing work that stretches your own boundaries as writer and as performer. If you’re going to do this, you can’t bring weak shit up there to be destroyed. It has to hurt you to see it go, or letting it go means nothing at all. The audience needs to recognize that hurt in you without pitying you — a fine line to walk.
Why did I include poems that weren’t destined to be ripped up in both cases? To create an entrance out of and an exit back into the “real world” outside the ritualized space of the night. To give people something to hang onto in a more tangible way than just in their heads. Touchstones. Beyond that…let’s just say it seemed like the right way to do it. Not everything is subject to rational thought.
The introduction and explanation garnered gasps and shock.
You could hear a pin drop in the room as each poem began. No chatter during the poems. Total attention to the moment.
Afterwards…gratitude. That was the big one. Anger, too…in some cases. Not a bad anger, just a “oh, God, don’t rip that one up!!!!” now and again. But it wasn’t a deep anger, more a frustration at having the pieces disappear into the ether.
A audience of storytellers, versus poets, lent a different flavor to it (part of why I did it there). Less anger, more appreciation. Hard to explain. (Also, a much older audience than ever before — average age was probably closer to 60; the other two readings were the usual, younger poetry crowd.)
And then it was done. And now, we all move on…
Thanks to all who participated in this.
I am deeply, deeply grateful to the Maine Organization Of Storytelling Enthusiasts (MOOSE) for asking me into their space to do this.