Poetry is for life, not for ivory towers.
That’s why, on October 29th, an initiative is launching that seeks to change the face of poetry readership — in America and beyond.
Does that sound impossibly big? The strength of it is in small things. Tea, toast, a hint of mischief.
Here’s the problem (or one of them) with poetry in America: on the one hand, poetry publishers and those in the poetry establishment want to reach new readers, but they continue to try to reach these readers in mostly old ways. On the other hand, our education system often struggles to teach poetry to the new generation — whether it be methodology problems like Billy Collins notes in “Introduction to Poetry” (beating the poem with a hose!) or issues like constraints in the curriculum.
Let’s be honest. (We make it our business to be honest about the industry, and it’s led us to recognize some very deep problems for poetry.) Here’s the truth: poetry, for the average citizen, is Hallmark. It’s Britney Spears. It’s the back of a clever cereal box. Why? Because these are the things the average person might encounter in his everyday space. The big Aaron Belz poetry reading in your local living room? Not so much. As ticklishly inviting as Belz’s poetry can be, it’s a good bet that Aaron hasn’t been reading in the cul-de-sac near you.
With something called The Mischief Café, that’s about to change. Call it a beginning. Call it an “end.” Call it the biggest thing that might have happened for poetry in a long time — an attempt to break poetry free from its “current double-bind.”
The idea is deceptively simple, with complex implications.
It started with toast.
In January, Pacific Standard ran an article about a remarkable woman in San Francisco, whose challenges in life led to the birth of Trouble — a café that offers toast and coconut milk served straight from the coconut.
Trouble quickly led to mischief, as Tweetspeak Poetry was inspired to create a welcome space on its website called The Mischief Café. Tweetspeak then enlisted volunteer “baristas” to pour virtual coffee, tea, and poetry (plus the occasional dash of mischief), for newcomers and regulars of the site, via Twitter and Facebook.
The system has worked beautifully. But here was the trouble, if you will. The fun of it has been all virtual. If the poetry establishment has gotten anything right, it’s the emphasis on live readings and poetry journals you can hold in your hands. This is critical, in an atmosphere where too many people experience “the unbearable lightness of not being, ” which, put another way, is the ethereal existence of living on the flat plain of technology. Here, our senses are limited to sight and sound. Touch is a keyboard. We don’t see the true, three-dimensional movements of Belz. Or get to pour his tea (or maybe he’d pour ours).
So, with a nod to the establishment, Tweetspeak decided to take its signature depth and fun (and toast and tea) on the road, with a traveling Mischief Café — tea, cinnamon toast, and poetry, brought right into people’s homes, amidst friends. It contains the promise of three-dimensionality that a poetry reading offers, without the intimidation. (Really, think on it. A poetry reading might seem benign enough, but the average person simply isn’t going to attend. It’s too unfamiliar. And unless we’re talking about city dwellers, it’s probably miles away.)
Ay, but here’s the rub. Just as there is only one Belz, there is only one Tweetspeak Poetry, and it is miles away from the all the requests to bring the café to the Pacific Northwest, Texas, the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic, and the southeastern seaboard. New Jersey is the exception, so the very first café will take place in the Garden State on October 29, in Basking Ridge.
Let’s say the café was delivered establishment style, and only the “experts” at Tweetspeak could do it. How long would the average person have to wait, for poetry to come to tea right down the street?
Too long. And that points out the additional trouble with poetry. We have too few means to get poetry into people’s hands, in ways they can parse and play with, that also take it a step up from Spears (and we hold nothing against her, but she’s no T. S. Eliot). What can be done — for poetry, and for poetry coming to tea?
In a conversation with fans on Facebook, Tweetspeak landed on a helpful solution: a Mischief Café guide and anthology.
So T. S. Poetry Press created one, and quickly. In the spirit of including the regular person right from the start, the guide includes not just great poetry from established poets, but has blank pages with poem title prompts at the top, for people to write their own poems during a café gathering, unless that’s too intimidating. Such decisions would be up to the host. Everything can be kept as simple as tea, toast, poetry read aloud amidst friends. (Though mischief might not be optional.)
Whether Tweetspeak brings the café to homes by tour, or people run their own, in the end, this could be big. If you doubt it, consider what the book club did for novels.
It’s time to take poetry home–for life.
Photo by Lars Erik Skrefsrud, Creative Commons, via Flickr.