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Reading Mark Nowak’s Social Poetics:” Thinking About The First Tuesdays Cento and A Flipped Script’ Poetry Reading

I’m just a single chapter into Mark Nowak’s Social Poetics—the chapter is called A People’s History of the Poetry Workshop: Watts, New York City, Attica,”—and can already tell that this is a book I’m going to have to read slowly, maybe even giving each chapter a second read before moving on to the next one. It’s not just the power of Nowak’s narrative, the way he so concretely demonstrates the seamless connection between the poetry workshop and the socioeconomic, cultural (which, as often as not, means racial), and political stakes that inform the lives of working-class and otherwise marginalized people. It’s also passages like this one, which provide a great deal of food for thought:

This radical and pedagogical experiment [Adrienne Rich’s Elizabeth Cleaners Street School] also included a creative writing workshop. The decision to include such a workshop reminds us again that creative writing workshops have long have long been a part of a community-centered radical nucleus in and through which a peoples history is analyzed, contested, and created. We can see from the curriculum of the Elizabeth Cleaners Street School, from [June] Jordan and [Terri] Bush’s workshops, and from the work of [Herbert] Kohl and [Victor Hernández] Cruz and others, that the creative writing workshop has regularly been a space not only for craft conversations but also for debates about community control, racism, utopias, radical teaching, radical learning, and social transformation. (35)

I wrote in the margins of my copy of the book, Reading should be this as well!” because I remembered the literary salons I used to run for the Jackson Heights Poetry Festival, the precursor to First Tuesdays, the reading series I now host in Jackson Heights. The salons, which were free and open to anyone who wanted to attend, took the form of a workshop and reading by a poet I invited. I left the form and content of the workshop up to poet, but I wanted the reading to follow something other than the traditional format, in which the poet would read for 20-30 minutes, followed by a Q&A. In my experience, such readings often end up precisely antithetical to the community-building intent of the women—Sara Heinemann and Marina Yoffe—who named the Jackson Height Poetry Festival after the neighborhood in which they and I lived.

So I hit upon this format: Rather than having the poet read without interruption, forcing the audience members to wait till the end to ask any questions they might have, I would make room for them to respond with questions and comments at any point in the reading that they wanted, though I did ask them not to interrupt in the middle of a poem. If their response sparked a conversation, we’d talk for a while, and then, when it felt right, I’d ask the reader to move on to the next poem. To prepare, just in case the audience response did not spark discussion, I asked the poet to send me either some or all of the poems he or she intended to read. I would use them, I explained, to develop a set of questions, some of them connected to craft, some of them to the content of specific poems, some connecting the poems to the world at large. After three or so poems, if no one from the audience asked a question or offered a comment, I would ask one, invite both the poet and the audience to respond, and we’d see where the discussion led.

These readings took place more than ten years ago, so I don’t remember any of them clearly, though, as you might expect, some went better than others. What I came away from that experience with, though, is the conviction that, while there is certainly a place for the traditional reading—in which the reader and the sponsoring group are, hopefully in some collaborative way, in control—readings themselves are often more interesting and more generative when the audience has some power and authority to shape the event while it is happening (by which I do not necessarily mean spontaneously and without planning). Part of this interest, for sure, comes from the writer’s vulnerability, since they don’t know when or how the audience will respond; but it also comes from the way that being given and then claiming in the moment the authority to voice their responses puts the audience in touch with their vulnerability, since there is always risk in speaking back to and asking questions of those who ostensibly know more or have more expertise than you.

At, First Tuesdays, which is an open-mic/featured-reader literary series, there isn’t enough time to make the featured reading the kind of experience I’ve just described. Instead, I have moved the site of audience authority” (if you will) to the open mic, during which we work together as a community to compose a cento made up one line or phrase (since not everyone reads poetry) from each open-mic reader’s offering. After the first reader, I will ask if anyone caught a line,” meaning Was there a line you particularly liked? That line becomes the first line of the cento; then I do the same after the second reader, and so on and so on, until the end. When we get more than one suggestion, there’s a discussion of sorts as the group decides which line works best. Sometimes—once we got four suggestions at the same time!—we even use all of them.

The shtick—though, to be fair to myself, it is also more than a shtick—is that I recite the entire cento from memory each time we pick a line. It’s difficult to convey the complexity of the whole process in words, but the end result is always something like this:

You don’t know this from the video—and, unfortunately, I have not yet added the text to the First Tuesdays website—but the poem did not develop into numbered sections until we got to the lines of what became the third section—about six or so readers in—and I began to feel and hear the shape of the cento as I recited it. I facilitate the cento process, in other words, but I certainly don’t control it, and the result is an open mic that builds community in a way that I have never before experienced. At some point, perhaps, I will write about how the cento came to be. Here I just want to note its effect. Through the active listening that trying to catch a line” requires, the process of composing the cento has knit the First Tuesdays regulars into a community that both honors the creative work of its individual members and, in further honor of that work, comes together to create from it something entirely new. The cento has also created a profoundly welcoming environment for newcomers to the open mic who feel their work honored and included in the same way.

Given world enough and time (and, of course, money), who knows what else might grow from the energy the First Tuesdays Cento generates. Several people over the years have suggested collecting them in a publication of some sort and I did, one season, make a PDF chapbook of the centos and distribute it to everyone on the series mailing list. But, again, world enough and time (and money). So, for now, I am busy adding the backlog of centos—and, when I have them, the videos—to the First Tuesdays website. Some make better poems than others, of course, but I think they all should be preserved somewhere, not just as a record of what the First Tuesdays community has produced, but as a testament to the commitment and trust, artistic and otherwise, that has knit the group into a community in the first place.

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The passage that I quoted above from Social Poetics also brought to mind an idea for a different kind of literary reading that I’ve been playing around with in my head for a while now, one that would turn almost all control over to the audience. As a working title, I refer to it as the Flipped-Script Reading.” The traditional script, after all, has the reader choosing what to read and, if applicable, in what order, as well as whether or not the reading will center around a theme—unless the host has chosen a theme, in which case the reader decides how to respond to it. In addition, the reader almost always chooses to read something he or she is already comfortable with and around which they have already built an engaging patter, a choice that will often shape the nature of the Q&A.

There is, in other words, something pre-packaged about the traditional reading, which I mean as a critical description, not necessarily a negative judgment. Still, I’ve been wondering for a while what would happen if we turned that script around and allowed the audience to choose what they wanted to hear (and, if applicable, in the order they wanted to hear it)? If the audience came to the reading prepared with questions, based on that chosen material, that they wanted the writer to engage, not in the one-off manner that characterizes most Q&As, but in substantive dialogue? What different vulnerabilities and strengths would this require all parties to bring to the reading? How would that change the nature of the experience for both the reader and the audience? What new awareness or understanding might each of those parties discover through this process—about literature, about themselves and their roles in literary community, in society—that they might not otherwise have even thought about?

Except insofar as I think it is best suited to classrooms or other forums with the kind of organizational infrastructure to make the reader’s work available ahead of time, I haven’t fully thought through what would be required to pull off a reading like this. Nonetheless, my gut tells me that it could be one way of making the literary reading, as Nowak says, a space…for…debates about community control, racism, utopias, radical teaching, radical learning, and social transformation.”

Perhaps one day I’ll be able to give it a try.

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