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A poetry anecdote, just in time for Poetry Month
by Scott Dickensheets | posted March 31, 2014
Poetry Month begins tomorrow, so we asked poet Lee Mallory, transplanted here from Orange County not long ago, what he, with his fresh eyes, saw as the health of the local poetry scene.
Nov. 12 marked the oddest featured reading of my life. That was at Silver Sevens Casino (the old Terrible's), and I mention it because in microcosm it surely represented the uphill fight poetry faces in this city. That is, when a Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter warned me that Vegas was a "show-centric" place, I still had no idea what a tough sell poetry would be.
To a poet who's trying to help make some sense of this crass, stressfully disjointed but wonderful world, "show-centric" means getting poetry some attention against nearly impossible odds: from laughable Britney to sublime Celine to ultraviolet DJs, jugglers, acrobats, rodeos and NASCAR, what chance does the poet have? There are more razzle-dazzle shows here than I can afford to see in three well-paid lifetimes, and getting press to raise a poetry audience is next to unheard of. This is especially a problem, for doing so without press just attracts the same handful of coffeehouse aficionados, half of them poets themselves. Result? An entirely incestuous scene that never takes poetry to the wider public it deserves. This struggle also bumps up against poetry's branding of being boring and irrelevant to our lives.
So there I was at 5:30 on a dark casino stage. I was the more so anxious because I'd sold the marketing director on letting me read there without any precedent. I recall him asking, "What's your poetry gonna do for the casino's bottom line?" Add to that Norm Clarke a day earlier, asking his readers if they'd ever seen a poet on a gambling hall marquee. Given that, I remember thinking, "What the hell am I doing here?" (You see, all my life's benign coffeehouses, library rooms and sterile classroom encounters could never have prepared me for this.)
Meanwhile, I was on a raised stage, with a bar and all sorts of drinks and money being exchanged between me and the audience — all this to the rapturous hoots of slot players, with bells, whistles and sports screens all around me. This would not be singing to the choir, but rather a desperate attempt to capture the attention of gamblers, drinkers, lovers, every one of whom could be doing something else.
So I simply warned them at the outset that folks would be talking about them next morning at the watercooler, saying things like, "I heard Sally was at a poetry reading last night. How weird is that?" Then I worried again that everyone there could be doing anything other than listening to poetry. Lovers could be pairing off in the rooms, or singles might be betting on their next pairing, or the next big game. You see, there's always a bigger game in town than poetry, so what could I do..?
I just started to read like hell, to sex everyone up with the excitement and inspiration of the best poetry I had. I'd try like mad to give them something real in that netherworld of fun and artifice. Try to bond, with more celebration than cerebration, and make them cry for more. In fact, the place was fuller than ever, and we did bond. But that one 50-minute sell was the challenge of this poet's life, and there, in small scale, is what each Vegas poet's up against. Distractions, amusements and an audience with many other things to do. And the poet, as usual, crying out to be heard ...
Lee Mallory will present "Creativity and the Word," a poetry reading and discussion of the creative process, at 6:30p, April 22, at the Whitney Library, 5175 E. Tropicana Ave., free, lvccld.org
Pick up your Desert Companion today at one of these Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf or Jamba Juice locations.
Also available at Clark County and Henderson libraries.