Audience & Experiment

This weekend Beau and I went to a theatre production--I'll try to keep the details of it as vague as possible, unless otherwise relevant, because the point of my post today isn't about the show's quality, but my response to it.

I was in the theatre less than 30 seconds when I realized what I was witnessing was not theatre as I knew it, but a form of experimental/innovative/strange theatre--if you've seen She's All That, think of Rachel Leigh Cook's little performance art show and you'll get the picture. The staging was minimalist to say the least, the costumes professional but a little strange, the acting bizarre. The lighting, I thought, was fantastic--beautiful, evocative, innovative. But it was the only thing you could say I "enjoyed."

I got nothing out of the performance except confusion and consternation.

But it got me thinking about audiences and experimental poetry. Because I am fairly well indoctrinated into poetry, I understand some of the more consistent elements of it, or rationales, if you will, for creating it. Even when I don't like experimental work, I can usually appreciate the concepts, the effort, the ideas, the risks. But when I was an audience for another art form, my boundaries of participation were much more strict. I not only did not enjoy the play I saw, I actually felt some hostility toward it. I actually thought, "What's the point of doing this like this? Why not just do it in a straightfowardly dramatic way?"

And there's the catch--

--because the way it was produced was part of the point. Sure, I get that the story is a psychological thriller and that two of the characters were crazy inbreds. Sure, I get it's drawn from Gothic literature. I get those aspects of it.

But I did not enjoy the show, and it made me realize that one of my primary goals as an audience member that day was to find enjoyment, to be entertained in the mode in which I had expected. But I actually felt something I often hear people say after encountering poetry:

"I didn't get it."

And up until that afternoon, I had assumed that an audience member's failure to "get" something was really a failure of the artist to communicate it. But after this show, I felt like I, as an audience member, was underprepared to appreciate the art I just experience, and it made me feel--frankly--weird and embarrassed, partly because I do consider myself somewhat "cultured," whatever that means.

Now, if someone told me prior to the show, "It's a little experimental and avant garde, so you'll have to be patient," I might have come out of it better. But the fact that I had no preparation for that, that I went in expecting one thing and got another, really had me flummoxed.

In terms of poetry, this raises some questions for me:

a. How can we, as poets, prepare our audiences to experience our work (on page or in voice)? What tools do they need that they might not already have? This would be a key question to understanding how to get new audiences involved in poetry.

b. How can we, as artists, contextualize our work for an underprepared audience? What's the responsibility? I feel like some audiences will seek out their own education in this regard, but because audiences are notoriously lazy and prefer to be handed the tools they need, what else can we do, or how can we inspire them to seek more information?

To some degree, I think great art can transcend its form, meaning that even the most experimental work, when most effective, will appeal to and speak to an "under-indoctrinated" audience. Like how, as an eager film student, I was very put off by David Lynch's Eraserhead but loved Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, even Mulholland Falls. I was moved by some of Maya Deren's short films and loved Bruce Conner's A Movie. But there again, I was in a specific audience context, there to learn and discover, not just to enjoy.

I feel like I'm getting lost in this maze of logic and discussion.


  1. Interesting post. You definitely have to be careful with "experimental" work. If you can pull it off you're a genius, if not you run the risk of coming across as just weird, quirky or pretentious even. There's a fine line between experimental and cryptic.

    I think that b/c sooo many different forms of poetry exist, it's important to present your work as it was originally intended UNTIL you really master the form as a writer. Then you can experiment. Hope I'm making sense.

    Highly structured poems (sonnets, sestinas, etc.) are best read from the page in my opinion. I like to "see" the rhyme, the word choice, etc. on the page.

    Other forms work well when "performed." I don't think you're talking about more current forms, but the same goes for spoken word/slam pieces. I think they translate horribly on the page b/c the form wasn't designed to be read.

    However I've seen many people attempt to defy convention and actually pull it off. I once watched Amiri Baraka "perform" a string of related haiku and it was absolutely genius.

    I guess you have to first know your target audience and then pay attention to yourself. Know better than anyone else the message you want to convey through your writing. Once that's done, chances are, your audience will follow you...I think :)

    Just my two cents.

    -Victoria D.

  2. The students in my "advanced" MFA poetry class are generally put off - and hostile towards - anything more difficult or experimental than Billy C. or Mary O. I try to introduce them to newer, edgier writers, but they just spend the whole quarter complaining about them. I ask myself if I'm doing the right thing as a teacher - and I think I am - by introducing them to what is actually going on in the contemporary poetry world, rather than just succumbing and only giving them "easy" poetry.

  3. If it's my mom or my little brother, who are both intelligent readers who aren't indoctrinated in poetry - then I try to give them a little explanation beforehand of what a book is about - Gluck's Meadowlands, or Harvey's Modern Life - and they seem more engaged if they know ahead of time what they're getting into - sort of like what you're describing.

  4. Years ago, back when I met with a regular weekly group of poets, the wife of one poet suggested that she would happily buy more poetry books if the authors would only write a 2- or 3-page preface *explaining* "what the poems were trying to do," She reasoned that her best experiences with poetry readings were those in which the poet took time to introduce and contextualize each poem.
    My gut response at the time was that the reader should be willing to spend some time with the poems without having them "explained." But then again, I don't write experimental poetry.

  5. there's an educational term for what i think you're talking about: frontloading. (since i teach, education is often where my mind goes)
    you make excellent points.
    since i'm a writer, i've wondered---much less articulately than you've done here---what is my responsibility to the audience to help its members get something from my work.
    yes, some will do the work to understand our writing. i'm not sure those that don't/won't are lazy. sometimes i think people have no idea where to even start.