Editorial note: usually, I wrote about spreadsheets and social justice. This post is about poetry and webinar technology succeeding/failing in bizarre harmony. If you want to read about spreadsheets only, come back for my next post!
My phone illuminates. “5 minutes until Mark Doty!! Don’t forget! Love, mom.” The inertia is so strong during quarantine that I’m liable to pass up on things I really want to do because I’m already doing something else. It’s not the same as forgetting. We’re all moving through this collective haze and changing gears is a monumental effort. Sound familiar? Ok, back to the story. So, I decide to tune into the Crowdcast featuring my arguably favorite poet.
I like to say, “Mark Doty changed my life.” And it’s not just because I’m one of his many superfans. In high school, I went through a deep slam poetry phase, including staying up all hours of the night on youtube and making pilgrimages to the Bowery Poetry Club and Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe and even a National Poetry Slam event where I somehow managed to sneak into Boston’s bars without so much as a fake id, spending the culmination of a year’s worth of babysitting savings. I have the chapbooks to prove it.
Mark was the first “page” poet who’s work I admired, largely due to my fantastic English teacher at the time. I remember pouring over “A Display of Mackerel” and “Charlie Howard’s Descent.” To this day, Mark has trademarked the word “multitudinous,” in my mind, much the way Robert Hayden has claimed “blueblack cold” in “Those Winter Sundays.” I don’t count myself much of a poetry aficionado anymore (as you can tell from my Goodreads), but there are poetry volumes that I still love and return to, and Mark’s are on the top of that list.
Perhaps, you can imagine my surprise when I paid my “admitted students” visit to the college where I ended up matriculating, and guess who was giving a lunchtime poetry reading? In my poetry-obsessed, synchronicity-seeking, confirmation-bias accepting adolescent brain… this. was. DESTINY. Never mind that the student who housed me forgot to give me meal vouchers and locked me out of the dorm (red flags that I should have paid attention to). Never mind that the poetry reading was only attended by the event organizers… and me… This was my auspicious first meet and greet with Mark, and a gateway to the rest of my life.
A few months later, when I packed up and moved to campus, I brought my copies of Mark’s books, including the sentimental, used volume of Atlantis that my English teacher had gifted me, and which I had promised to keep a secret, since teacher gifts were prohibited. And so begins adulthood.
Fast forward to the present. I logged into the Crowdcast platform with 200 perfect strangers. I was astounded when Joyce Carol Oates … presumably THE J-C-O… was jovially chatting it up in the side panel. Who else was mingling among us? The chat was a blitz of introductions. “Hello from Bucks County!” “We love Mark!” etc. As this went on, it became increasingly clear that something had gone awry. 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes later, and still no Mark. No poetry reading. Was it me? (I check my computer). Did I get the time wrong? (I text my mom). No and nope. But here’s the amazing thing… there were 200 audience members and everyone stayed. Perhaps we can chalk this up to fandom or quarantine (remember what I said before about inertia?) but if that was true, I wouldn’t be writing this blogpost.
No, the amazing thing was that this crowd recovered from our ennui and started sharing poems in the chat. Might as well, since we were all there because we were diehard Dotyites primed for poetry! “Oh, you gotta read this one!” someone would say. “I love that! I teach it to my students!” another would reply. “You’re a teacher, too?” “Here’s my favorite.” Right there, in the chat of this anonymous and semi-broken platform, an anthology emerged before my very eyes.
As someone who is often tasked with IT, I couldn’t help but think, “I bet the tech people are so stressed out right now! I wish they could see that we are ok, happily chirping along!”
Inevitably, some unsolicited but good-spirited tech advice started rolling in. “Have you checked the microphone?” “What browser are you using?” “I heard this doesn’t work on iPads.” “No it does! I’m on an ipad!” What about this? What about that? It had been 20, no 25 minutes. I imagine the tech team frantic, scrambling, agonizing over the event. I longed to reassure them. I was already having a great time! Don’t worry about us!
The hostess gracefully reschedule for the following evening.
I took a note that I may have to do the same thing in my career some day, and if I do, it will really be okay.
24 hours later, I got another reminder text from my mom. (She’s even better at marketing than the independent bookstore hosting the reading). “Mark!! It’s time! Log in!” I tune in. Astonishingly, 200 people are back! (Who knows if we’re the same 200 or a new bunch of Mark mavens). Mark and his interviewer serenade our ears with reflections about Walt Whitman and readings from Mark’s latest book. The chat is buzzing, with greetings, musings, and, invariably, tech advice.
There’s something delightfully reassuring about seeing this community come together … thanks to … and in spite of … technology. The easy camaraderie allowed perfect strangers to effortlessly weave technology and poetry into a spontaneous chatroom. “Try turning it off and then on!” “I can’t see Mark! Can you?” “So articulate.” “Mute your microphone!” The animating gestures, altruistic but ultimately unhelpful advice, and fervor to connect left me feeling inspired and somewhat overcome with emotion. This was kind of a perfect storm (a cancelled webinar during an international pandemic, relying on an unfamiliar platform with not the most technologically literate audience) – that yielded something unforgettable.
Here is my lessons and an invitation: the next time you host a webinar, consider including a poem or another thought provoking reading in the chat while you get logistics ironed out. Trust your audience to be patient while you fix the kinks. Perhaps they can learn as much from each other as from the presenters! It’s ok to try again. Last but not least, answer texts from your mom!