November 2, 2010

Poetry Slams: Not Just for Hipsters Anymore. ~ Chloe Chatenever

Photo courtesy Paul S.

Poetry isn’t “my thing.” Every now and then I run across a poem that I appreciate (usually printed on a refrigerator magnet or bumper sticker), but for the most part I find the genre pretty inaccessible.

To be fair, my aversion to poetics probably stems from my experiences with the poetry majors I encountered while earning my Literature degree in college. One might think that all of the English majors would bond over our shared love of the written word…or at least the bleakness of our future job prospects. But the poetry majors made it very clear that just because we belonged to the same department didn’t mean that we (the peons that made up the rest of the Literature majors) were in the same league as them.

They walked around campus with an air of nonchalant superiority. These were the kids that complemented their vintage cotton tees with skinny jeans and horn-rimmed glasses (a stereotype, I know, but I call ‘em like I see ‘em) and had all mastered the art of non-verbal condescension.

So in all likelihood my apathy towards poetry has less to do with a genuine disinclination towards the art form and more to do with my past insecurities about measuring up to the cool kids. Either way, I don’t consider myself a lover of poetry.

Since graduation, I find myself seized every now and then with the guilty sense that I am losing touch with the love of language that I spent four years cultivating and nurturing. Typically, these moments of doubt galvanize me into a reading frenzy, during which I consume a handful of paperbacks that have been deemed “classics” by the literary powers that be.

A few months ago, one such moment of guilt impelled me to begin reading Anna Karenina for the first time, which in turn has led me to decide that, like poetry, Russian novels just aren’t “my thing.”

My run-in with Tolstoy left me a little gun-shy when it came to selecting my next book, so when someone suggested that I attend a poetry open mic night at The Laughing Goat, a local Boulder coffee shop, I thought it might be a good way to assuage my literary conscience without going toe-to-toe with another weighty tome of classic literature (an unopened copy of Moby Dick has been sitting menacingly on my bookshelf for years now).

Still, I had my doubts about going to a poetry slam. I was expecting a crowd of hipster poets who would spend the night yelling non-sequiturs rhythmically into the microphone.

But the experience surprised me.

Instead of walking into a room full of edgy co-eds, I found myself surrounded by a widely eclectic group of poetry-night participants. There was a grandfather who had come to read a poem about his father’s experiences in World War I while his family listened from the crowd. A handful of seriously hilarious high school students read original poems, most of which, they confessed, had been composed during History class that day. A sibling duo got up to “spit some rhymes” for the audience. One man even read a poem about checking out women at Whole Foods.

Far from the holier-than-thou attitude I had come to expect of poets, these people rejoiced in the little community that we all belonged to briefly that night. Instead of asserting their literary superiority, most of the participants were humble about their poetic offerings. Every contributor was met with hearty applause, and when they weren’t reading on stage they were listening respectfully or extending encouraging remarks to each other. The entire event was imbued with a feeling of warmth and welcoming that I hadn’t expected.

In today’s world of online social networking, video sharing, instant messaging, e-mailing and texting I sometimes feel completely connected and simultaneously utterly isolated. At a time when so many of my interactions with other people are mitigated by a screen, the sense of intimate camaraderie and community that poetry night produced was incredibly comforting.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t think I am any closer to understanding poetry and I’m not about to take the stage at The Laughing Goat’s next open mic night.

Poetry still isn’t “my thing.” But poets just might be.

Chloe Chatenever lives in Boulder, CO where she is interning with elephantjournal.com and Sweet Letter Press. She is a recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz where she earned her Bachelor’s in Modern Literary Studies. She likes to spend her free time traveling, singing in her car, and playing board games. She also thinks penguins are pretty cool.

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