The Poetry Project New Year's Day Marathon reading is about the gradual accumulation of many voices over a long period of time. This year it made me think of The Coltrane Church in San Francisco, which I sometimes went to when I was living in SF in the early nineties. It had four or five-hour ceremonies, comprised mostly of music (including all of a Love Supreme) and a sermon that was all about politics. I'm a card-carrying atheist, but I liked the vibe at the Coltrane Church because level of playing was so high -- often much better than what was in the jazz clubs. The other thing I liked about it was the creative, communal vibe -- half the audience was carrying instruments, and would come up to take solos. This process could go on for a long time, and the quality of playing could range from great to abysmal, but it didn't matter, because the social vibe included a suspension of critical judgment, or, at any rate, suspension of the type of critical judgment that most resembles making impatient and repeated special demands on a waiter while eating out. Some players would be good and some bad, but anyone who wanted to be included would be, and the overall social/creative collectivity was what it was about. It was a refreshing change of context from the social frames of the jazz and poetry scenes, both of which were (and are, in NYC as in SF) ostensibly communal but as deeply competitive as any professional sports in reality. Not that I'm totally against that, cooperative and competitive modes both have their place. But I never left the Coltrane Church feeling - wow, that person was awful (no matter how weak some of the individual playing might have been). It was always like -- a beautiful mass of variegated social/musical information -- which is what the New Year's marathon is like.
In poetry there's almost no difference between the audience and the artist. At the New Year's reading you get up from the audience and read (to a room that is mostly other poets) and then sit back down while another poet gets up from the audience and reads and sits back down etc. At a rock show, the artist is pointedly superior to you and separated from you, and that's how you want it -- you're using them as an avatar, and fantasying about having their power. At the marathon reading the one actual rock star, Patti Smith, also gets up from the audience and then sits down with everybody else (she was actually sitting next to me this year). Of course, all the 15-20 year olds pour out as soon as she's done. (I'm no doe-eyed Patti Smith fan, but her performance this year was quite good -- solo w/ guitar playing a single Indian-inflected D-chord and really belting it out.)
So there's stuff across the spectrum, terrible, great and in-between, and it all accumulates in a way that inevitably makes it about the collective experience. The downside of this is a certain exhaustion, as it was at the Coltrane Church, but the unique context makes it worth it.
It's interesting to see how people handle the situation of being a blip in such a larger event (which is so much what people are as individual biological entities anyway). Some read one or two short poems and in a modest way (surely the most difficult thing to pull off). Some read one short strong piece. Some go three times too long with weak, unrehearsed material. Some blare theater chops. Some mix poetry and music. Some trot out well worn clichés. Some open a detailed window. Some make people laugh. Some do hilarious poetic performance interventions. Some share intimate details. Some evade. Some annoy. Some hint. Some bewilder. Some turn the camp up to eleven. Some declaim. Some list. Some drone. Some mumble. Some chronicle. Some fantasize. Some object. Some charm. Some surprise.