Tuesday, May 12, 2009

All Things in Moderation

I promised I’d take a shot at stirring some kind of catalyzing agent into this pot, so I want to broach a topic that’s been on my mind for quite a while:
Moderated readings.

Or, as some call it, “censorship.”

I know this has been a touchy topic around town for quite a while now. Some lash out at such language restrictions. Some blatantly flaunt them, dancing with the threats of angry store managers.

I just want to ask why.

Before the anti-censorship mobs come to string me up, I’m going to make it clear that I’m no prude. You’re not going to scar my tender little ears by throwing out some graphic descriptions or other language not approved by the FCC. I gladly stand up for the freedom of speech, and I’ll be the first person to argue that there are times, pieces, instances when such language is warranted—yea, even necessary—in a poem. But the skillful artist knows the time and the place.

When language restrictions have been repeatedly made clear, there is no need for someone to attend such a reading and drop four-letter words like sprinkles on a cupcake. (And just to be clear, I’m speaking in generalizations here; not calling anyone out specifically. It’s just that I’ve seen and heard this happen all too often.) I can almost understand such a slip if a poet had never been to a certain reading before, didn’t know the rules beforehand, or was used to readings without any rules imposed by the hosting establishment. (Although, when in doubt, wouldn’t one prefer to err on the side of caution?) But long-time attendees have no excuse whatsoever.

Folks like to declare that they are simply standing up for their divinely ordained right to free speech.

I’d like to argue that by doing so, you’re restricting my own.

I’ve said this before, but I’m going to repeat myself. Poetry is already a hard enough gig. We’re already fighting the fearful stereotypes of long-winded and dry high school literature teachers trying to pound iambic pentameter into teenage minds. Or the stereotypes of black-turtlenecked hipsters wearing berets and snapping their fingers. The wider world doesn’t understand poetry, and as such, fears it. Our goal, as poets, should be to make our art as open and accessible to the population at large as we possibly can in order to break down that fear.

So when an autonomous business, like a bookstore or a coffeehouse, graciously opens its doors to willingly host a poetry reading but adds, “We don’t want any bad language. We don’t want to offend our regular clientele,” I don’t understand why this should be an unreasonable request. They want to be open-minded, but they’re still running a business, and need to be as user-friendly as possible to the broadest audience. We just want a place to read and perform, where our words can reach the broadest audience. This should be a happy relationship.

But it’s not, because too many people constantly feel the need to push the limits of those clearly-stated, black-and-white, easy-to-follow rules.

I’ve found many very nice local establishments--good-vibed gathering places, independently-owned shops (hooray for local businesses!)--after which I’ve inquired about poetry readings or the possibility of my performing during their regular open mic nights. And I’ve been turned down. And why?

A precedent was set, long before I even came on the scene. More than once, I’ve heard, “Well, we tried it, but people just got vulgar,” or, “We told people the rules ahead of time, and they still wouldn’t follow them, so now we just don’t allow poetry/spoken word/etc.” And thus, those who fail to respect the wishes of the hosts, who fail to recognize when to keep themselves in check, have stripped the freedom of speech from everyone. Why is it so difficult to open one’s eyes and be a little bit aware of the surroundings and the audience? Keep oneself in check when in a coffee house frequented by family-oriented patrons, but feel free to let loose in the good-natured rowdiness of a venue like the Lit Café.

If we call ourselves writers, shouldn’t we have broad enough vocabularies that we are able to write a poem that is appropriate for a “moderated” venue? And if not, and we feel that the profanity is so central to our work, then why not simply fail to attend a moderated reading? There are plenty of forums here in Cleveland where language restrictions don’t exist. (In fact, I think “moderated readings” tend to be in the minority in this town—and I happily attend both open readings and moderated.) There’s no need to push the envelope in venues with rules when there are far more welcoming forums for those “edgier” poets and poems.

Why try to get your fellow poets forcibly removed from what would have otherwise been a welcoming forum? Why perpetuate further stereotypes of poets as being raunchy and vulgar, as being unsuitable entertainment for a more timid clientele? (Aren’t we trying to prove that poetry is for everyone, afterall?) Why be so closed-minded—that’s right, I said it—closed-minded about people’s reasons for hosting moderated readings? Why make our art even more inaccessible to the masses?

Some point to revolutionary artists of the past, declaring that we need to carry on their tradition of pushing the envelope, but those folks actually had something to lash out against during their time. But today, in 2009, what injustice are you fighting by dropping the f-bomb in a Borders? And whose cause are you furthering? You could be Shakespeare himself, but I guarantee, if you drop a foul cuss in a family-friendly venue—even if the gist of your poem was powerful, thought-provoking, even life-changing--I hate to tell you this, but all they’re going to hear was “fuck”, and they won’t care if the rest of what you had to say was a Pulitzer-worthy dissertation.

We’ve got something to say. Remove the barriers that are preventing it from being heard.


michael salinger said...

I do a lot of work in schools and one of the most ubiquitous programs out there is that of anti-bullying. When a reader decides his or her “freedom of speech” usurps the sensibilities of the venue (Chris Rock does not do the same set on Oprah as he does on HBO) the reader is nothing more than a bully.

I’ve seen several visiting author programs shut down in schools over this issue. A lot of time the reader is young and inexperienced – this issue comes up often with high school students who believe four letter words and shocking subject matter will make their work sound more mature or at least shock – but I’ve listened to academics rattle off lascivious work that juxtaposes with their elbow patched tweed so jarringly one can only assume their intent is the same as the aforementioned students. It makes me wonder what these folks have against their audience.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

Yes, I completely agree.

There is a place for unrestrained, uncensored, anything-goes poetry... but when a poetry venue specifically tells you "it's a family audience; could you keep it clean, please" --that's not the place. You should either respect them, or else go somewhere else where they don't mind (or even appreciate!) edgier stuff.

Diane Vogel Ferri said...

Thanks for this TM - If you want to be respected - you need to be respectful.

Pressin On said...

this is why i dont do hessler poetry.
at hessler the music is all broadcast on the radio. then, when poets perform, the radio switches to interview on the street. they dont air the poetry live.
rather, they allow a couple poets to recite their poetry in the studio.
to me, its second class citizen.
to not be aired as musicians are.
they in charge explained to me they cant trust poets.
i suggested, similar to the demos muscians present, in order to be chosen to play at hessler, why not have poets submit a sampling of their work?
i said, from that point is there word not good enough--that they will not cuss or be lewd?
no, it is not enough,
a poet is second class. cannot be trusted to keep it above the belt.
and this is because so many poets want to push that line---
i read differently when grandma is in the room. i bring enough material to choose what fits best.
i agree poets as a whole ought to be better editors. pick from your stack accordingly, and have respect.
but, dont also play to establishments that refuse to give you the respect you deserve---dont be second class.

pottygok said...


Is this something new this year? I remember reading live from in front of the stage at Hessler a few years ago, and last year, one poet actually had to re-read his poem because a passing airplane was louder than he was.

I agree, there are some venues that restrict poets so much that they become second class citizens, but I also wonder if a lot of this is now earning that respect back. Most places will argue that they don't need poets, or the relatively small audiences that poetry brings, and they're probably right. Also, and I think a lot of venues realize this, poets don't have anything to lose by breaking the rules. A musician who makes money by performing will not get as many gigs, and will lose money, if they can't abide by the rules of the venues; poets, who tend not to get paid, don't have this threat, and so there are those who may be (are?) a little untrustworthy, and have ruined things for the rest of us. So the poets need to earn the respect of a lot of places, which is one point that I feel Gottl is getting at, because it was ruined by a previous poet behaving badly. It falls upon every new generation of poets to improve the reputation of poetry, and educate the uninitiated. Any venue that allows me to do that is fine by me.

While I agree that, at a venue like Border's, censorship becomes ironic and frustrating when the poets are shuffled off to the back corner to read in front of the erotica section, I also have to recognize the community that has developed because of this reading, censored or no. This is a reading that actually has been threatened a few times because of foul language and customer complaints in terms of subject matter, and I have been accosted by a manager because of what a featured poet read, so those fears and threats are very, very real. However, we are still allowed to read, still allowed the chance to develop community, and even given the chance to sell books and the like under the table, even if those same books aren't displayed on the shelves. I would argue that any time a venue provides an opportunity to read, be it censored, pre-recorded, or simply hidden and isolated, poets still have a responsibility to read and be heard. A lot of times, things can change more drastically from playing inside the rules instead of trying to break them.

Shelley Chernin said...

I'm a bit of an outsider. I don't go to readings with any regularity. I doubt that I write anything that couldn't be read anywhere. But I find myself a bit troubled by some of this discussion.

As poets, probably the one and only thing we all have in common is a love of language. We have different reasons for writing. I don't personally care about reaching broad audiences, erasing stereotypes, being accessible. Neither do I care about pushing the envelope. I don't think any of us should assume that we all have, or should have, the same goals.

In our large, diverse poetry community, our varying reasons for writing are bound to cause conflicts and tensions. Painful in the short run, but fertile ground for community growth and change in the future.

Let's be clear. Venues that restrict speech do so for purely economic reasons. If the poets spent more money at Borders than the folks complaining about the poets, Borders would tell the complainers to take a hike.

So where does that leave those of us who love language, but have differing reasons for coming to a reading? I hope it leaves us in a place that respects language, ALL language. That's certainly what I taught my children to do. I bristle when I hear buzzwords like "family-oriented," as if there are words that children shouldn't hear. Words are just words. We don't distinguish between them in my family.

I don't care much about respecting Border's economic needs, nor do I care much about respecting the language phobias and prejudices of their shoppers. I do recognize that some fellow poets need these venues to do their work. Out of respect for their need, and in recognition of our shared love of language, I wouldn't choose to break the rules at a moderated reading. But I can see that other poets with other needs might.

Theresa Göttl Brightman said...

To each his own.

And yes, we all have different goals in our writing, and I apologize if in some way, I implied that all poets have the same reasons.

Although, dare I say that any poet short of a Dickinson hiding his or her work under the bed is looking for some kind of audience and forum in which to be heard--even if that forum only takes place on this blog. So pretending that audience doesn't matter is a shiny ideal that I don't think anyone TRULY aspires to, regardless of what he or she says....But this is probably a topic for another entry altogether.)

Just to respond to comments about being treated as "second class citizens"...such treatment happens because of past transgressions, past broken trust. And we all know that trust is easier to break than it is to regain. That trust will only be regained by repeatedly dealing with such restrictions and proving that we are capable of living by them, even if we weren't the ones who committed the original offense.

But again. To each his own, and we all have different reasons for what we choose to do.

Vertigo Xavier said...

If anyone can relate to the difficulty of producing moderated shows vs. unmoderated, or to the difficulties of convincing café owners to allow unmoderated content, I can... Muggswigz in Canton used to have a weekly poetry open-mic. Muggswigz asks for a moderated show. As the show went on (without the original emcee), poets would not abide by that and the owner shut the open-mic down. (They still have a music open-mic, just no poetry one.) When I approached him about doing the very first Poet's Haven show there, it took four weeks of visits and e-mails to convince him that I could moderate the show. I had to read every poem that every poet was going to read before they could go to the mic. He was worried, even frightened, that poets would go to the mic and be vulgar just for vulgarity's sake. I've also had poets feel the need to break the rule, including two instances where the poet was one of the features. (There's photos on the 'net of me nearly blowing a mental gasket in one of these cases.) I've often been asked why I still do moderated shows when several venues are open to hosting my unmoderated shows. Allow me to point you towards episode 10 of the podcast, featuring an amazing 9 year old poet. If we cannot do some events that are open to the youngest poets, we won't have another generation of poets to keep the scene growing. It is as simple as that.

I also find it very offensive when someone calls a moderated show "censored." Censorship is a governing body telling a poet that they cannot read or publish a poem ANYWHERE. Moderation is a venue or publisher saying a poem is not appropriate HERE. If you want to read a poem called "Mother Fucking Shit Head Bitch Cunt Mother Fucker" (an actual title submitted for review at a moderated show), please bring it to an unmoderated show. (Or with a title like that, even save it for a 21+ show.) Sorry, you cannot read that poem at Muggswigz, Insights, Cool Beans, Borders, or the public library. If you don't like the rule at a Brunswick Artworks reading, hey, the Lit Café is the same night and is just 25 minutes up the highway. If you don't like the rule at Deep Cleveland, come on out to Lix & Kix. If you don't like the rule at one of the few moderated Poet's Haven shows on the schedule, come to the next month's show. I love vulgarity, and I love the fun ways I've heard Cleveland area poets make use of vulgarity. But there is an appropriate time and place for such works, and a reading with children and parents in the audience who are not expecting to hear R-rated language is not it.

J.E. Stanley said...

A few, albeit somewhat repetitive, thoughts:

There are times when the "f-bomb" and/or it's "mother," are necessary. Joe Haldeman's autobiographical Vietnam poem "DX" is an example that comes to mind. This piece, by the way, is well worth looking up, if you haven't read it. And, in fact, I think it would be a good piece to read, with the language intact, to your children as an antidote to John Wayne-type war movies and such. However, it's still not a piece I would read to other people’s children in a moderated, public venue.

As for the Strongsville Borders, when we read there, we are in with the general public (and usually in the Art Section in the front of the store, rather than the Erotica Section in the back corner). On the other hand, the very few bookstores with "uncensored" readings normally have us read in the basement, a back room or on the second floor, areas with little or no customer traffic. And, Borders has let us continue to read, in spite of the complaints and the relatively frequent violations of their rules. Speaking of the irony of Borders Erotica section, the fact is that they will carry controversial books, erotica and otherwise, that most bookstores will not. That they're willing to offer printed, controversial material, seven days a week, (even if it's for economic reasons) is a more important contribution to freedom of speech than allowing poets to swear at their customers for an hour and a half, once a month.

And, economics and respect for the venue are real issues. I'm thinking in particular of a certain small, independent bookstore that once had monthly poetry readings (and where the owners had a large section of books and chapbooks by local authors right in the front of the store). At the final poetry reading, there was a greater percentage of poems with the "f-word" than I've heard at any other reading, anywhere (including the Literary Café). The owners received numerous complaints from their regular customers. I witnessed two potential customers come in and immediately walk back out (and, I understand there were more than just the two that I saw). The owners had also provided refreshments and stayed nearly an hour late, without complaint, because the poets (who knew it was past closing time) kept on going. While their total sales for the night were $0.00, their expenses, of course, were not. The owners opted to discontinue the readings, rather than restrict the content and I can't fault them for that. The store was already struggling to survive, and has since gone out of business. The poetry readings certainly did them no good and cost us, as writers, a valuable venue for both the printed and spoken word.

I would maintain that I have the right to use the "f-word," along with any other word(s) I choose, but I don't force it on the customers of a moderated venue (especially when there are customers who are not there for the reading, but there to shop, drink a cup of coffee or whatever). I don’t use it in places like Borders or, at least the word itself, even here on this blog. I think of that more as discretion rather than self-censorship.

And, when I think of "censorship," I think of a government (or other third party) prohibiting a willing seller/author from providing material to a willing buyer/reader. If someone has preferences as far as what they want to support, at their own expense, in their own business, or their own home, is that censorship?

Anyway, I am grateful to those who provide both moderated and un-moderated venues.

Runechris said...

Bravo.. I'm glad this has been addressed. Thanks TM... I also think a lot of the comments are right on target.. I will be back with a longer comment later.

I think just as in regular society there are appropriate places for "colorful language" and inappropriate ones. It's not out of order to understand that there would be poetry venues that also might have restrictions... and that it is common sense to respect those restrictions.

If some one wishes to use expletives then find an appropriate venue for it.. there are plenty out there to accommodate.

More later...

John B. Burroughs said...

I haven't had time to respond to this properly. But there are a couple of things I'd like to set straight about the bookstore. Other than the poets, who packed the house, only two potential customers opened the door that night. They immediately closed it without entering - not because they heard any f-bombs (I have the whole reading on video), but because there was no room for them to walk through. I was one of the poets who used the F word at other times during that reading - but there were no minors or non poet-crowd customers in the store when I did. And anyway, Dianne and I asked the proprietors ahead of time if there were any language restrictions (this too is on video), and they replied that there were not, but that they hoped we'd use discretion when children or other customers entered the store (we would have, but none did, so it was a moot point).

It is also not entirely accurate that they sold $0.00. My wife spent our last $25 that night at the store on an art photograph that hangs on our dining room wall. She liked the photo - but a big reason she bought it is we felt guilty not buying anything after the proprietors had been so accomodating to us. Before she bought that, I'd looked for a book to purchase - but they didn't have a single poetry collection in the joint besides a used paperback of Milton's Paradise Lost they were selling for $5 (and I already had a copy at home). ;)

Shelley Chernin said...

Although the word “censorship” is sometimes limited to official or governmental action, in common usage, it is also used in a general way to describe any suppression of speech on grounds of morality. While we’re not talking about First Amendment issues here (which require government action), we are talking more generally about suppression of speech, in the opinion of some on grounds of morality.

But I don’t see the moral issue in a child hearing someone read a poem called “Mother Fucking Shit Head Bitch Cunt Mother Fucker.” In fact, if anything, I think it’s immoral to withhold the full use and power of language from our children (as well as knowledge about our bodily functions and sexuality).

I would hope that poets would make well-reasoned decisions under the circumstances about what to read at a given place and time without unthinkingly buying into the cultural assumption that this is a moral issue, which it’s not. It may very well be the wrong place for your poem, just be clear about why.

Jen Pezzo said...

I think if a poet doesn't follow the rules and respect the venue, then all the moderator or even the audience will see is an ass standing at the mic.

The shock value only conceals your intentions and seems offensive to an audience who may not want to hear vulgarity for any number of reasons.

Unfortunately this behavior does not only make the poet in question look like an ass to the audience or moderators, but now they think that ALL poets are vulgar, pottymouth, unprofessional, disrespectful asses.

I'm not saying any poet is an ass, btw. I'm saying the audience may perceive them as such.

I think an audience has a right to choose what type of poetry they want to hear and should not be assaulted (sp?) with vulgarity by anyone for that choice.

There are better ways to communicate displeasure with moderated events and still be professional and polite, such as going to a different event.

On the other hand, moderators/emcees of venues should also do some work and know who they are featuring in a moderated event. There are some that are great at this, others are not.

Also,if it is that important to keep the venue moderated - maybe instead of an open mic, invite only featured readers you trust will follow the rules. Give those poets a chance to get their poetry out to different audiences.

TM - this is a great article. Thanks for stirring the pot. :-)

J.E. Stanley said...

Just to be clear, my previous post was concerning the use of language at moderated readings. I am grateful for unmoderated readings and those like John and Dianne who organize them.

A few years ago, Joanne Cornelius, dan smith and I organized a monthly reading at Bearfield's Coffee which was, among other things, uncensored. Unfortunately, it was rather short-lived, lasting only for four months. We did have a good slogan though: "Arrive sane. Leave dazed and confused."

And yes, John is correct that the bookstore I'd referred to did not censor the poets at the seven or eight readings they did have (it wasn't really an issue at first, though). However, any future open readings they might have had would have been moderated and they took a great deal of flak for that on top of the inordinate amount of flak they'd already received from their regular poetry readers/customers who wanted the readings moderated. Anyway, they got caught in the middle, couldn't make anyone happy and it became a very difficult issue for them.

At any rate, I really liked the owners of that bookstore and felt almost like a guest at someone's home and it did affect the way I feel about the way readers act at moderated vs. unmoderated readings. Before that, I probably would have agreed completely with everything Shelley has said and would have maintained that if anyone is offended by language or sexual content it's their own fault. A big part of me still feels that way. But now, I do find myself becoming more and more conscious of the concerns and problems faced by the venues hosting the readings.


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau