A prickly (on my part) chat with Bruce Kauffman about open mics and other stuff
Over the fall of 2010, I had the privilege of acting as writer-in-residence for the English department at Queen's University, In Kingston. Those few months in Kingston were pretty exciting — among the best periods of my life. I found a very welcoming community, got to know a lot of great people, helped to create some community, put on a heap of readings, ran some workshops, taught some classes, met with dozens of writers from the campus and community, drank a lot of beer at The Mansion, and attended some local events.
One of the regular events I got to was an open mic at the Artel, a kind of artist-run, communal art space just off Princess Street, Kingston's main drag. The open mic at the Artel, which happens on the first Tuesday of every month, is the creation of Bruce Kauffman, who is as swell a guy as you can find anywhere. He also hosts a poetry show on Queen's campus radio station CFRC. Bruce and I had several java meetings over the course of my stay in Kingston, and he came out to just about every reading I organized. So we saw a lot of each other.
But me, I have very little patience for open mics. Sometimes I want to run from the room screaming. How does one create a supportive testing ground for new writers and at the same time also encourage quality work? This question, which has plagued me for years as I've squirmed through the "I just wrote this poem on my napkin tonight" readings at the Art Bar in Toronto and elsewhere, is what sparked me to conduct my first-ever interview here on my blog.
So here, without further blah-blah, is my back-and-forth, via email, with my friend Bruce Kauffman. I'm hoping it'll be just the first in a series of interviews I'll do with people I don't agree with.
SR: You’ve provided some great energy in the Kingston literary scene the last couple of years, with your monthly open-mic series at the Artel, and with your weekly radio show on CFRC. You’re supportive and enthusiastic, and you’ve channelled those qualities into creating community and into providing opportunities for local writers to give their work exposure. Perhaps we can start with you explaining how and when each of those projects evolved.
BK: thanks for the opportunity and the kind words, stuart — my pleasure — and honoured to be a part of your project
chronologically, the open mic poetry reading came first — so i’ll start with that — a few years ago, my chapbook, seed, was published — and in the course of self promoting over the period of a couple of years or so, i moved next door to the artel (an artist collective) and thought that would be a perfect place for one of my readings, and then wanted to make it bigger than just me, so i included a 45-minute open mic ahead my own reading there in march of 2009 — the open mic was exciting that night and many came away pretty pumped and wanted to know when the next one was — so i canned the idea of me or anyone as a feature and launched the “poetry @ the artel” series in may of 2009 as strictly 3 hours of open mic, and on a regular monthly night — there are reasons why i created it other than the fact that there was a demand for it, but i’m guessing that might be another question ☺
as for the radio show, after hosting the open mic for about 9 months or so, i was looking for a way to add another level, or another dimension or something to it — i had indirectly been involved with CFRC in a very limited way over the course of a few years but knew several volunteers who worked there — so i was interested at the “listener” level and had indicated an interest in becoming a volunteer myself — long story short — i thought about the open mic series — i knew how important that series was to all of those who participated, and i thought of it as a way of taking their voices to a bigger audience and another level — if you think about it in those terms, the title of the show, finding a voice, can really be interpreted or read in a number of ways — after the initial idea was approved by CFRC staff and a successful demo and shadow done, the show was launched the first week of may 2010.
SR: Let’s back up a bit now. What’s the short-form version of your background? When did you begin writing poetry? What writers inspired you? And, finally, do you remember your own first public reading?
BK: i’m originally from colorado — and began writing poetry in my 1st year university there — and although i continued to write, i really didn’t become passionate about it until about 1994 and i believe it was in 1994 that i attended my first readings — and it’s somewhat of a chicken and an egg thing — not sure which came exactly first, but both the passion and the doing seemed to grow together — i religiously began to attend a weekly open mic/featured poet reading series for 2 or 3 years, then was asked to co-host and then host the series for about 2 or so years, basically until i moved to ontario in 1999 — and now, i host both the monthly open mic poetry series and the weekly radio show here
publishing history — research editor for the poiesis poetry guide for colorado (1998), several collaborations/anthologies both here and in the states, a chapbook, seed, published (2006), streets, a stand-alone poem published (2009) and a book review (antigonish review — john pigeau’s the nothing waltz — 2010)
most inspired by w.s. merwin — far and away my favourite poet — but other poetic favourites have been/are whitman, william stafford, czeslaw milosz and pablo neruda — and as well rumi and gibran — but other than gibran and whitman, most of these didn’t come into my life until the '90s — and, really, it was very early in my teens, probably the single most author and event that made me “understand” that i was a poet was the book (and as well the movie) dr. zhivago by boris pasternak
i do remember my first public reading — at one of the weekly open mics mentioned earlier in this answer — so it would have been in the summer of 1994 — we each had 4-5 minutes and i was quite nervous
SR: Like you, I also did a lot of early readings at open mics, mostly at the Axeltree Coffeehouse readings in downtown Toronto. Unlike you, I find them pretty hard to take now (more on this later). You create a very warm and welcoming atmosphere at the Artel. What is your philosophy around open mics? What do you think they accomplish, for both those presenting their work and for the audience?
BK: most of my early readings, and my experience with open mics, were held in the daily grind coffeehouse in denver — and i guess my philosophy toward open mics might come a bit from those experiences — which i felt were also warm and welcoming
and i guess, simply, the first tenet is that an open mic must be a place where any poet can come and feel “safe” — a place that encourages compassion, a place that feels inviting and encouraging — a place where anyone can come and not feel intimidated
as for what open mics accomplish — i think there are as many answers as there are those who either attend or present — but i think it, in and of itself, inspires people — there is a bit of a kindred spirit there — i have seen it inspire people to pick up a pen after both short and long periods of neglect, to begin writing for the first time, to allow presenters to verbally share their words perhaps in a way that wouldn’t be possible anywhere else, to get feedback, to pick up on a single idea or a seed that becomes something enormous and intense when they develop it into something else, and a fulfilled desire to touch others with a message presented in a deeply felt way —— as for the audience, i feel their sense of accomplishment comes when they are touched or moved by another person’s words
but now i’m not guessing — personally, both either as a presenter or as an audience member, i go to poetry readings because in the doing i become more passionate about poetry in general and in my writing as well — and it was after my first reading that i truly came out of my shell — and kind of an aside here, to me, there really aren’t very many things more beautiful than watching and hearing a poet read in front of a caring audience for the very first time
SR: OK, here’s where I start to get lost with open mics. I do think it is important for people to be encouraged around their writing and made to feel safe in presenting it, but where does the quality of writing come in? What I see happen at open mics is that everyone gets wild applause. In fact, sometimes the most inexperienced writer gets the most applause. Is it possible that open mics reward bad writing much of the time?
BK: let’s start this way — let’s assume that there is importance to the quality of writing — especially in any eyes of the “editor,” the self-editor, the publisher — couldn’t the argument be as easily made that an open mic’s reception and exposure actually create the space to allow the inexperienced writer to become “better”? — specifically, the environment allows and then encourages those inexperienced (and really any) writers to continue to write by “being around and hearing” other and diverse writers — put another way, the open mic space indirectly encourages more writing along with a possible exploration of depth, style, vision and voice
now let’s come at it from a different direction — “good” and “bad” — and let’s deal specifically with poetry — what is a good poem anyway? — is it something that resonates — most probably — but nothing ever, anywhere resonates with everyone all the time — so does that, then, make any/every poem a bad poem — and then if it’s ok that it’s a good poem as long as a number of people resonate with it — where do you draw the line — what happens if only one other person resonates with it, or two — or ten in a group of eleven — or one hundred in 60 million — the concepts of good and bad are obviously subjective in everything, but i feel definitely more so in art — i’ve long taken more of a taoist view when it comes to these terms in poetry
for me — at an open mic and in each poem, i try to hear three things that really have nothing to do with quality — they are seed, voice and heart — what “thing,” in its own time, that touched the poet enough to pick up the pen at all, the sound it was heard in and the place within that wishes to share the words and the message
SR: Greeting cards and Harlequin romance novels resonate with tons of people too, but I don’t think they’re good literature. In response to your first point, though: if the aim is to encourage inexperienced writers to improve, wouldn’t they do better reading some really good books of poems? As I said before, I think the consistently warm applause at an open mic encourages bad poetry.
But I’m getting the sense that you’re not trying to create something that produces fine writing: you’re more concerned with providing a safe forum for people to express themselves.
Do you think, though, that there is such a thing as a good poem and such a thing as a bad poem? I mean, aesthetic taste aside? Are you suggesting that quality is entirely subjective?
BK: i still feel that with anything written — it is ultimately about resonance —
to start and simply for argument’s sake — the fact that i, or you or someone else, might “think” that greeting cards and harlequin romances are not “good” literature is really quite irrelevant — moreover, the fact that we “think” — in itself, implies subjectivity — and if greeting cards or romance novels touch someone, move someone, encourage someone to read and to find joy in reading something, anything — i feel that is important — and looking at “good” from a different perspective — isn’t that, in this way, “good” literature? and for them — we do not know where that goes, or what it leads to next
sure, the mission of the poetry series is to create an open, friendly and accepting space — and nothing else — it has never concerned itself with attempting to impress, but has felt that presence at times — i believe that “good” and “bad” as mentioned in the previous answer — are really just a simplification of what’s in front of us — not just in poetry, but in all things — so i can’t really go there — but, to try to explain these good/bad concepts i don’t really believe in — this — does applause really encourage bad writing? to me that focus is too narrow — applause “can” do so many things in a broader sense — encourage confidence in the novice and the unsure, encourage commitment in the humble or the pragmatic, encourage capacity and growth in the sure and the involved — and that may lead nowhere, or down any number of almost infinite paths that i cannot, but someone may, predict and then deem as either good or bad
i shy away from the advocacy that there is an objective way to measure a poem — the “logic” behind that advocacy comes from the concept that 2+2=4 —— but 3+1=4, 1+3=4, 47.27-43.27 also equals 4 — and what is 2 or 4, 2 apples does not equal 2 children crying — does not equal 2 suicide notes — does not equal 2 dead babies left in a dumpster … and even taking mathematics (perhaps the only objective thing i know — and even that is questionable) just a tiny step outside itself — it, too and immediately, becomes obviously subjective — so, by default, all other things, including quality, must be subjective as well
SR: I don’t think you’re going to agree with my suggestion to lock open-mikers up in spartan rooms where they are forced to listen to recordings of Mark Strand and Alice Notley for days on end. (I believe this is called “poetry-boarding” — it may not be legal.) So let’s move on!
Tell me about your anthology project with Hidden Brook Press. Do you see it as a new avenue, or something that organically has grown from the Artel event and the radio show?
BK: That Not Forgotten is the title of the upcoming poetry/short prose anthology with Hidden Brook Press and is set to launch late summer/early fall 2012. The call for submissions went out on May 1 and ran until October 31, 2011. The call was selective, only geographically — and even loosely at that. The only requirement was that the poet/author needed to have some connection, at some point in their life, to the north shore of Lake Ontario, in an area roughly from Kingston to Port Hope and north to the #7 Highway. The mission of the call, and now the book, is to paint “with an eclectic brush, reflections of, reaction to, hope within — pieces of ourselves found, pieces of ourselves lost here in this place.”
There is both a wealth of talent and a generosity of heart here. There were over 100 poets or authors who contributed well over 300 individual pieces. As editor of the anthology, I am hoping to complete the second and final read/edit of the submissions by mid-December at the latest. Following that, a determination of sequencing, order, possibly grouping and that type of thing — and then after that I turn it all over to Tai Groves, the publisher, and let him do his thing. We do currently have another call for submissions out, until January 31, 2012, for cover artwork for this anthology and are already getting a few submissions. The book, in the end, will be published by Hidden Brook Press/North Shore Series, again, set to launch late summer/early fall.
Stuart, I can say that I have fallen in love with editing as much as I already had with writing and, yes, would love to pursue more of it. And i really believe all things are in process and equally interconnected, and i see perhaps editing and working on other projects as a growth both from and around the open mic poetry @ the artel reading series and finding a voice on CFRC — and that a growth from my desire to promote, encourage and help nourish local talent — and that as well a growth from my love for the written and spoken word — and all of it flowing from the support of and the wonderful talent of others, and the genuine compassion found here in this city.
SR: Bruce, I really appreciate your time and patience with this interview. Clearly, you’re a good guy and I’m a meanie. But that’s just how it is.
Over and out.