Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Melbourne 1997 - and the (actual events in the) worst ever poetry night in my memory

So, where were we?

Oh yes, coerced Selwyn into accompanying me to the South of the river poetry night.

The night - a winter's Thursday evening.

The place - a cafe in St Kilda.

The reason - poetry reading, 7.30 - 9.30pm

Rain had just started falling gently when we set out on our quest. Combining Selwyn's map-reading skills, the foggy weather and the vagueness of the address, it took some time to find the cafe referred to in the listing.

But get there we did. A fairly deserted road in the less popular edge of St Kilda lit very intermittently by street-lights.

On the walk from the Rig to the cafe, I fell and skinned my knee - had I known this was the exciting point of the evening, I doubt I would have gone any further and instead sat in the puddle I was in and cried.

Selwyn would have preferred to see this as a sign and need for liquid refreshment - I know that because he said "why don't we go for a drink instead" several times during the drive, the walk and the picking me up from the pavement.

But I was made of much sterner stuff and had hopes.

These hopes almost shrivelled when we entered the establishment. I can't remember the name of the cafe, but it had "Blue" in the title - probably in reference to the tinting of the window, perhaps as a tip of the hat to the jaunty nautical theme it attempted to emulate, maybe because that was the overwhelming response of the clientele upon entering.

But there are days when my optimism can overshoot any signs of foreboding, and this was one of those days.

So we were in the cafe. Which brought the total population in the cafe to 2. The lights were on, but it could not have been more deserted. Considering we arrived about 20 minutes after the reading was meant to have kicked off, it was not a good start.

After a few minutes of staring at each other, we noticed a small bell by the register, so we used it to see if there was some secret society meeting going on elsewhere. Eventually the proprietor of the establishment appeared, and he was slightly disgruntled by our intrusion.

After apologising for being in his cafe, I asked about the alleged poetry reading and was advised that the guy who ran it generally turned up about 8. We ordered coffee and water (at great inconvenience to the owner) and sat to wait.

10 past the hour, finally another body entered the cafe. I interrogated him and found that he was not the organiser, but a friend of his and fellow poet. After a brief question and answer session (to call it a conversation would have been a disservice to the concept that conversation is a two-way interaction) he went to the opposite corner of the cafe to go over his poems. 10 minutes later, the organiser entered, looked briefly in our direction, rang the bell for the owner and huddled with his friend.

The rush was on, because by by twenty-five past eight - nearly an hour after the advertised start - the crowd had swelled to five, with the entry of quite possibly the most perculiar woman I had ever seen at a poetry reading (and I can assure you, that statement covers some perculiar woman territory) lugging a battery-operated Casio keyboard and a large striped shopping bag.

Shortly after this (with some prompting by Selwyn) I approached the organiser to enquire about the reading and its likelihood to kick off (I didn't add Selwyn's "before the pubs shut" remark) and was advised there was usually more of a turnout and it would all be jolly good fun and then he was served with his free dinner (the four coffees we had bought going a long way to improving the cafe coffers, no doubt) and I was dismissed.

I was caught on the horns of a dilemna - stay and hope, or cave to Selwyn's cajoling and fund a trip to the pub.

Luckily I was saved having to decide, because abruptly the friend stood in the middle of the room and began to read.

Apparently the friend was something of a scholar, because his words were styled very methodically and in such constant tonal pitch that only some obscure poetic "form" could excuse its dirge-like rhythm. I believe it was based on a story in the dark ages about knights and a long trip towards the battleground - a very, very long trip where nothing much happened. We never quite got to the battleground, because after about 10 minutes of torture the organiser stood and interrupted him with "thank you (insert name of friend here)" and pulled out a book of his poetry.

Or rather, pulled out a book of someone else's poetry. He didn't actually say it wasn't his poetry, but he also didn't say whose poetry it was, he said "this is a poetry book I picked up once" and then went on to read a selection of some other poet's work.

Now, if you have ever been to a poetry reading, you know that this is not good form - not because it is someone else's but because he went to no lengths whatsoever to attribute it.

At some point, his homage ended. This was only noticeable because he sat down abruptly and within seconds the lady with the keyboard began telling us all about her day and how she had found the Casio in a second-hand store that morning (what luck) and had scrounged around for the necessary cash because it was such a bargain and would expand her creative freedoms and just hold on a tick because she had never set it up before, never played it before, never ACTUALLY PLAYED A KEYBOARD before but weren't we all going to be in for a treat.

I was feeling like a drink myself at this stage, but out of respect for fellow poets (there is a code) didn't feel I could just get up and leave. Darned middle-class poetry ethics!

After setting up the keyboard and having a little tinkle, she dug around the shopping bag and found some sheaves of papers.

At least she attributed. "The following stuff is by (insert name of poet here) who was a mate of my Dad's but he died before I was born." She then let rip.

She sang in a high-pitched nasally squeal indecipherable words, stopping in the middle of lines to find just the right (wrong) notes on the keyboard for dramatic effect.

Thank goodness the poet was dead, was all I could think, and stayed sane by imagining him spinning in his grave at the travesty that was being performed on his words.

I whispered to Selwyn that there was no way I could perform my poetry to these people, definitely not my good stuff - but I was saved from having to make any decision on what quality I might have to offer by her sudden cessation of wailing, and the immediate leaping forth of the friend.

Apparently his knights hadn't arrived at the battleground, so he resumed his dirge from where he had left off, and took us right to about ten minutes further in the journey.

Again, the organiser interrupted and found another poetry book to trample on another unattributed poet's efforts.

Again, the screech and wail of the woman with the keyboard - at no point was there more than a 10 second break between the players, at no point was any eye contact raised in our direction, at every point Selwyn's request to leave this affair for a drink became more and more appealing.

It took another cycle of this "entertainment" before I could insert my "we have to leave now" - and we fled, out into the cold, down the sodden street, into the Rig.

"Can we go for a drink NOW?" asked Selwyn.

"Lord, yes" was all I could weep.


BB said...

Oh gosh... glad you didn't waste any of the 'good stuff' on them. Or the bad stuff even. Although a little inspiration may well have gone a long way by the sounds of it!!!


Lin said...

What wonderful story telling, Jeanie!

Jayne said...

....and if you wander down an ill-lit street late at night you can still hear some odd creature yowling at the tree tops with her Casio keyboard tuned to the "stun" position :P

Love it!

Jen at Semantically driven said...

Wonderfully told. I think you needed a stiff drink beforehand, and definitely one afterwards. I can just see the Casio woman doing her thing. Damn those poets' ethics from preventing you leaving earlier!

MissyBoo said...

Such a shame the cafe didn't serve alcohol!

Debby said...

But Jeanie, given the excruciatingly horrible offerings, there was your chance to be the star!

San Diego Momma said...

I had the EXACT same experience here in the States. Right down to the woman with keyboard, and arrogant organizer.

It turned me off to poetry readings forever because I did not want to be associated with such a cadre of blowbags. Still, I'm appalled that the organizer didn't acknowledge your presence.

In my experience, I finally did get up and read my poem, but I was later upstaged by the big-boobed, pendant-wearing, raven-haired Wiccan who half-whispered, half-sang her violent selection, chest heaving the whole time.

Good God.

Woman in a Window said...


And they say life doesn't imitate art. This was art! Albeit a little anemic and a lot weird. I love it!

Do you blog your poetry? I'd love to read some.

Maude Lynn said...

How did you suppress the urge to cackle at the Casio lady?

screamish said...

my god what a barbaric state of affairs if you can't even get drunk at the café...I've had similar experiences at "contemporary dance" wish you'd tkane drugs beforehand...even if you never touch drugs .....slightly absent is the state of mind to aim for