Poetry, Prose, and Rock ’n Roll

Poets don’t usually open for rock shows. But Shea Stadium — no, not the real one, but a DIY venue in a warehouse in Brooklyn filled with Christmas lights and Mets logos — encourages the strange. So on a cold night in early October, poets Margaret Ross and Jenny Zhang and author Leslie Jamison took the stage alongside Mitski, an indie-rocker. Dubbed Vocal Fry, this unconventional marriage of literature and music marked the first installment in a reading series curated by Bryn Lovitt, Jordan DeBor, and Daniel Poppick of the underground music and art publication AdHoc.

I’ll be honest — I came to Vocal Fry for a rock show, and I don’t think I was alone in that. Scanning the packed room, I saw a classic indie-rock crowd — a lot of black boots, an abundance of weird-but-attractive haircuts, nose piercings galore. We all got our concert, but, oddly, it didn’t start when Mitski — the only musician and final act — started to play.

No, as soon as the first poet walked onstage, the event felt almost like every other rock show I’d ever been to — art made communal, energy made manifest. Although the reading was, on its surface, much like all the rest I’ve been to — no crazy lighting, no smoke machines, just writers reading from slightly crumpled pages — I came away feeling I’d had an entirely different experience. I generally dislike the stuffy reverence associated with literature read aloud in the formal setting of capital-R Readings: they feel stiff, as though everyone there is slightly embarrassed to admit they’re enjoying themselves. It was thrilling to hear writers read their work to an audience that actually felt excited and appreciative and alive — raucous, even.

The artists themselves, of course, carried the show. Margaret Ross read first, reciting quietly wrenching poems like “A Timeshare.” She looked out into the crowd as she spoke, wide-eyed as though all the rapt listening faces scared her a little. Then came poet Jenny Zhang, who read in an affected, babyish voice and tossed out shock like it was no big deal; I heard the word “cunt” more times during her reading than I have in the entire rest of my life. Zhang often writes about her experience as an Asian American woman, and read her incisive poem “seppuku” to loud cheers from the audience. Leslie Jamison, who writes fiction and literary nonfiction, read last. Her prose straddles humor and truth, perhaps because it needs the former to get at the latter. Jamison read “Rehearsals,” a nonfiction piece about weddings, eliciting laughter at lines like “You thought you knew drunk crying before you went to weddings” and murmured its assent at ones like “Weddings are about… wondering about being in love — what it’s like for other people, and whether it hurts as much as it sometimes does for you.”And last came Mistki, whose acoustic set relied as much on her lyrics’ poetry as it did on the music. Playing without the band that sometimes backs her, she appeared to mimic the writers’ quietly effective performances. I was surprised that I found this performance — far more restrained than most live music — exceptionally arresting and passionate.

As I left the venue, I found myself wondering: why does Vocal Fry work? Why did I prefer it to any other poetry or prose reading? What made it feel so unique and so poetically effective?

The venue itself plays a huge role. On a purely physical level, the intimacy of the space is essential. I don’t think Vocal Fry would scale well to some arena; it would lose the trick of a small venue, the feeling that, no matter how full the room or how tight-packed the crowd, the performer is speaking or singing directly to you. And placing poetry and prose in the same space as indie music is a pragmatic choice; both rely on similarly obsessive but tiny fan bases. Connecting the two feels almost natural.

The careful pairing of specific music and literature certainly strengthens the link between both arts, and the combination of performers certainly felt intentional. I’m inclined to believe that Vocal Fry is on a well-meaning mission to trick people into hearing poetry and prose with the promise of music. Not only does thoughtful curation create a cohesive experience, it also ensures that the people at the show hear writers they’re likely to enjoy. Vocal Fry’s next show includes a male writer, Lucas Mann, in addition to two women. Pile, a noise rock band, will close. I imagine the show will be much different, or at least I hope it will.

The argument against Vocal Fry, of course, is that it tries to cram writing into a box historically occupied by live music alone, into which it doesn’t fit. By making writers openers, the show implies they’re not the main act. Simply putting poetry and prose in a venue dedicated to music suggests writing’s inability to support itself. These are fair ideological points, but impractical ones. The fact is that poetry and prose don’t often get the public attention that they deserve. There’s a reason most kids would rather grow up to be rock stars than poets. Putting writers onstage, in a show rather than a cerebral, alienating reading, reminds us that art is meant to be not just profound but also profoundly fun.

I left Vocal Fry feeling not like I’d done a good deed, not like I’d taken my cod-liver-oil spoonful of culture, but like I’d spent a night out experiencing the things I love best: live performance, music, and writing. And on the long train ride home, I couldn’t stop hearing the sound of an audience applauding words like they would music.

 

 

Charlotte Goddu is a sophomore in Columbia College, and a member of the editorial board of The Columbia Review. 

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