Cheryl A. Rice at the 2019 Word Fest Readings Against the End of the World, April 13, at UAlbany, Albany, NY

The Return of the In-Person Reading

I used to be a great one for hopping in the car after an eight-hour shift at Cosmodemonic Communications and heading out to a reading in Albany, or Beacon, or Middletown. I thrilled to journey into the outskirts of the territory, the comradery to be found on arrival, and the ride back in the dark, being one of the so-called Night Owls of Hudson Valley arts. It goes in waves, but at some points, I could attend a reading three or four nights of the week, including the Hudson Valley Folk Guild, primarily a musical organization, indulging me with a short spot on the program.

By the time the Plague of ’20 hit, I had slowed down considerably. Having a full-time primary relationship in my life was a tremendous change. I no longer had to look any further than my own backyard for companionship. I enjoyed spending my evenings with someone I had longed to do so with, someone I absolutely had nothing to prove to. My Beloved is someone to whom jokes or inferences do not have to be explained. We have somewhat similar backgrounds, with the usual variations that make for good conversation. I can’t say that our temperaments are similar, but he is the yin to my yang. I sometimes race in circles around his steady self, him waiting for me to return to where I started.

And gradually, the number of readings being offered diminished. Some moved further away, and after a 35-minute each way to work, I was no longer inclined to drive at least that long in an opposite direction. Other poet hosts moved on in their lives, too. We all still wrote poetry, more or less, but now were coming of age in our work lives, our family lives. I have a mortgage now, and all the petty nonsense homeownership involves. Granted, I won’t be one of those whose obituary leads with, “She always kept a clean house,” nor should I. The house will probably survive me, and my reputation won’t be based on my homemaking skills.

I have attended a few Zoom readings in the last year and a half, both as audience and participant. They lack the ability to privately contemplate someone’s work that a dark café allows. It’s like the old seating arrangement teachers would sometimes try to shake things up in the middle of the school year, a circle with all facing each other. Profoundly disturbing for someone like me who just wanted to melt into the furniture. And blacking out your Zoom screen just comes off as rude, the electronic equivalent of flipping through your own poems while someone else is reading, totally focused on your own time in the spotlight and no one else’s.

The first live open mic I attended in person in a long time was the 2nd Sundays event in August, formerly held in the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, now at Collar City Mushrooms. Not only can we pick up some of the purest, freshest mushrooms available, we get to experience a really open open mic, warts and all. Dan Wilcox and Nancy Klepsch run a tight poetry ship, which was always a big appeal to me regarding Albany area readings. A live reading also gives a stage to those not so tech-savvy, or may not even have internet access easily available.

And no, not everyone who gets up to read is Sylvia Plath or Dylan Thomas. There are the ones that shake, then read what should have been notes for a poem and not a work read in itself. There are the ones whose whole goal is self-promotion, reading mediocre work that benefits from the aforementioned promotion (and frankly, if we don’t promote ourselves, who will?) And there are the old favorites, reconnecting in real-time with poets whose work I’ve had a chance to hear and enjoy for decades. I’ve seen poets change, and I’ve seen work deepen. I’ve seen poets follow the same path, exploring what when observed is an endless supply of material And it’s almost all good.

This past Sunday we made a day of it- brunch with my Beloved’s #2 Daughter, who now resides in Troy, a stroll around to some of the new shops that have revived some neighborhoods (complete with a cranky book clerk), and a visit to one of the last surviving Friendly’s I know of for an after-reading gossip session. All of which have been sorely lacking in recent times. I welcome these new days happily. The Plague is still a part of our lives, and probably will be forever in some form. I recently had a loved one diagnosed with it, and although resting at home, she’s not out of that dark woods yet. But we do go on. We do gather around our metaphorical campfire and share what we see and feel. We still burn.