In the lead article of the LR Rajaratnam says of Vivek Narayanan's readings, that he
strolled across the bookshelves in Landmark “assaulting” the unsuspecting public with his verses. His reading was experimental (as is his poetry), often defying notions of fixity and permanence. Laced with humour, cynicism and bold stylistic devices, his reading up-fronted the element of theatricality, avoiding passivity of objectification.
Now, I must confess that in Prakriti's enterprise of 'taking poetry to the unsuspecting public', this aspect of how one ought to approach a reading is the one that had me baffled. And location has nearly everything to do with this question. Art Galleries, for instance, are spaces where people are not likely to wander in without purpose; whereas bookshops or cafes definitely are. So it would have been safe for me to assume that the audiences at Forum or Apparao were there because they wanted to be and not because they were 'unsuspecting' and unaware of what was in store for them. That puts me, the reader, in control of the proceedings.
But what of Landmark? How ought a poet to approach an audience that is not traditionally arranged - in chairs in front of the reader, listening with rapt attention - but scattered, and though occupying the same space as the reading, wandering in and out of it through stages of attention and diversion?
Vivek's approach of refusing the stage and wandering around with the potential audience while engaging them in conversation before reading out a poem is one way. It is radical and different from regular performances where readers take the stage, either sitting or standing and either recite their poems from memory - as Anjum Hasan does - or read them out while occasionally notating their work with brief sketches of the circumstances of the poem or a few words about the poem itself.
I thought back to other readings. And the thought occurred to me that such a radical involvement of the audience is possible even while never leaving the designated spaces that divide audience from author.
I know most of my poems. I don't often need the book in my hand except as moral support and because I'm eternally pessimistic and expect disaster (what if I forget my poem!) This gives me ample opportunities to look at the audience. I know who has their eyes closed and their feet up but who will look up sharply when there's a sudden change in tone; I know the restless ones, the one surreptitiously checking text messages, or doodling; I know the ones who look at me while I'm reading but look away when I look at them.
It's this last bunch that I've been thinking of. Why would they look away? I've taught in classrooms and read other people's work in front of audiences, and in those cases nobody looks away when I catch their eye. Why, then, would poetry affect them this way?
Could it be because poetry occupies territory that appears dangerously personal (people often want to know of poets, how much of their work has its origins in the quotidian events of their lives) so that to speak it aloud and look someone in the eye while doing so is to say, 'You're a stranger, but I'm letting you into my life. Listen.'?
Does reading poetry impose an intimacy on the listener that is tolerable only to the extent that they maintain the illusion that they are distanced from it both spatially and emotionally? That is is okay for the audience to watch the performer, but the minute the performer watches the audience watching her, some barrier has been dissolved?
And what does this say about methods of performance and how to adapt them to locations where such strategies are not possible - such as Landmark, where eye contact is not possible except where it is imposed on the listener by other means such as Vivek adopted?
I don't know. Any thoughts?