Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Fine Afternoon

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In May, Sue Chenette (Slender Human Weight, Guernica Editions, 2009) gave readings in St Paul, Minnesota and in northern Wisconsin. She reports on what happened in the small town where she grew up.

What would you do if you gave a poetry reading and nobody came? Well, almost no one. The other poet’s brother and sister-in-law were there, and my mom, and the librarian who had made the arrangements and brought the chips and dip.

It was the last of three appearances I’d booked in the Midwest, in the small northern Wisconsin town where my family lived years ago — where my father worked as a soil conservationist on thin-soiled farms while my mother raised four children, where I started kindergarten and graduated from high school. I’d thought it would be the most successful. The young librarian had sounded excited when I phoned from Toronto to ask about setting something up. “Great!” she said. “We don’t have much programming for adults. We can have refreshments.” She would post flyers all over town, put an announcement in the paper. And yes, she did know of one local man who wrote poetry. An older man who lived out on County Road W. He was a little eccentric, but he might be persuaded to read along with me. She could see that it would be a good idea, in terms of drawing a crowd, to include someone with friends and relatives nearby. I imagined, too, that old classmates, and people who had known my parents, would notice the newspaper announcement — I made sure to include my maiden name — and come out of curiosity if nothing else.

I must have been dreaming. I do know, in real life, how important it is to send email invitations weeks ahead of time, followed by a little reminder several days before the reading. Messages that will land in individual inboxes, with time and place in a clear font, and a cheery closing line, meant to be inviting and also to induce just the slightest twinge of guilt should the person receiving the email decide not to attend, something like “It would be great to see you there!” Any publicist would have told me to ask the woman in charge of our forthcoming class reunion for the email addresses of classmates who still lived nearby.

I hadn’t done that — although I did write to one school friend who turned out to have a doctor’s appointment in another city that day. Partly because it was too far down on my To Do list. Partly because it seemed akin to the sort of flaunting of intellectual accomplishment that would have cancelled, back in high school, any possible chance of an invitation to the junior prom. And partly, I think, because I saw the town I’d said goodbye to all those years ago in a kind of freeze frame, waiting to take up where we’d left off, everyone playing statues like we did when we were kids. Unfrozen when I crossed the city limits, the place itself would welcome me. As if Thomas Wolfe had it all wrong, you could go home again, book a motel room for yourself and your mom. And people would flock to your reading.

But here we are, a good fifteen minutes after the program was scheduled to begin: the librarian, my fellow poet, my elderly mother and myself, making hopeful conversation among three rows of empty folding chairs in the library’s Public Meeting Space, glancing out the large window to see if anyone might be coming up the front walk. A hand-lettered sign on an easel in the lobby announces my colleague as poet of the month, but the few people who come and go, checking out books and DVDs from the desk in the central reading room, don’t seem to notice. One woman, a childhood friend of my sister, was here promptly at 5:30, with a bouquet of lilies of the valley for my mom. She was so sorry though, she couldn’t stay, she had another commitment.

It seems silly to stand at the lectern, to read in any sort of formal way the programs we’ve arranged. Why not just pull four chairs into a circle and take turns reading to each other? Which is what we do. My colleague begins with a poem about a unicorn. I look for something to follow, come up with one involving a caribou. An improvised conversation in poems. “I could listen to you guys all day,” the librarian says, with apparent sincerity — although she confesses, when we ask if she has a favorite poet or poem she’d like to read to us, that she hasn’t really been into poetry since university. After a quarter of an hour or so, my fellow poet’s brother and sister-in-law peer enquiringly in at the doorway. Two more chairs added to the circle, two more listeners. It’s hard to tell if they’re really engaged, the brother looking slant-wise at the floor, the sister-in-law looking on with a permanently encouraging smile. My mom works at providing audience response: “Oh, I liked that one.” From time to time my fellow poet admonishes us to listen for the symbolism in his poems, or holds forth on why we need poetry, how it leads us into deeper perceptions and gets us to musing on our own experience. He’s preaching to the choir. We nod and agree, urge him gently along to an actual poem. But there’s no sense of impatience in the room. There are donut holes and coffee and crackers and cheese waiting for us on a small round table along with the chips and dip; a cordial offering. The spring day — all green and sunshine after yesterday’s rain — shines a calm light through the window. This is a good place to be, circled together around the words and images.

And then, for me, an extra bit of grace. I read a poem about my father. It’s about something I never saw him do, about a classmate’s telling me, years later, how Dad blasted out a new ditch on their farm in the 1950s, using fertilizer and diesel fuel and dynamite. “Yup,” the brother nods when I finish, leaning forward and speaking for the first time. “That was how they did it back then.” Lots of fingers lost, he adds, bending an index finger at the middle joint, making it short beside the others as he holds his hand up.

“Big crowd?” my husband asked when I phoned home that night. No, I said. Hardly anyone. But in the end that hadn’t mattered much at all. It was a fine afternoon.


Sue Chenette is the author of three chapbooks: The Time Between Us, A Transport of Grief and Solitude in Cloud and Sun. Slender Human Weight (Guernica Editions) is her first full length collection.

4 comments

What a vivid portrait you paint! What poet hasn't had this happen? I think we poets can all identify. You have also so well described the scene that every poet fears about each upcoming reading--what if nobody shows up? I wonder if novelists or non-fiction writers have this same experience? Yet, the more readings we do, the more we open the possibilities for poetry to be enjoyed. I don't think people who have not been exposed to poetry since high school are aware how accessible contemporary poetry is. Poets today, for the most part, speak in a language that people can actually understand, as they express the joys, concerns, fears and hopes that resonate with all human beings. As much as poetry comes from an individual voice, it speaks to the entire human experience. And as long as one person is listening, it is a most satisfying experience, as your essay evokes so beautifully. -Sharon Singer

I work in the theatre. When someone tells me he or she has never performed for a small crowd, I think to myself, "Well, either you're lying, or you haven't done very much." What's important is that we speak and that we are heard. Congratulations, Sue, on your Fine Afternoon--when both were accomplished. And with flowers for mom, too!

Well, Sue, as the previous commentator said, it ain't the number of people that attend that counts. Went to my regular Poetry Circle in Paris (France) gathering this evening. There were six of us, plus our host, an Oxford-educated Sikh who regales us with delicious tea (we bring the cookies), reading poems or our choice, after which we make comments and search for meaning. Those attending are from Iran, Australia, Ireland, Austria, the Netherlands (me), the U.S. (Black) and India, but we all share a love for the English language and its literature. All fine minds, all bringing their experience and sensitivity to the party, sharing our common humanity. Makes you happy to be alive. So, next time you come to Paris, Sue, you're welcome to our party. And bring some of your poetry.

"What would you do if you gave a poetry reading and nobody came? Well, almost no one." -- It's not always about size, is it?! I was once invited to give a reading at a library in King City. The librarian, anticipating a large crowd, had set up several rows of chairs and laid out a generous spread of treats on a fancy cloth. Ten minutes past the designated start-time, one elderly woman showed up, sat down front-row centre and asked if I was the poet. I said yes, but wasn't sure if she wanted to hear me read in a room of two. She said she'd come to hear me read, and insisted that I go ahead. So I did and when I was done, she clapped, bought three copies of my book, and engaged me in a conversation on ekphrasis over coffee and cookies. All in all, it was a fine evening. And two was company enough.
Thank you for the lovely article, Sue, and for jogging my memory.

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