Doing the Coffee House Thing
My latest excursion into polite society involved serving as the guest writer at a teen coffee house held at our high school. This was an extremely interesting experience for a number of reasons, only a few of which I'll inflict upon you.
I've never been one to attend a lot of public readings because I don't really enjoy being read to all that much. I'm one of those learners who needs to read rather than just listen. (If I'm at a real lecture I have to take notes. Listening truly isn't enough for me.) I also often find readings a little embarrassing and awkward. Often the audience is packed with friends of the readers/writers, and there's a little lovefest going that I get to witness but not be part of. The last time I attended one was maybe three or four years ago. I hadn't been there fifteen minutes when I thought, "Oh, I remember why it's been so long since I've been to one of these things. I don't like them."
But the coffee house I was part of Friday evening (I believe it was called "Generations," but I've lost my program) was a cut above what I've been used to, and I've spent a lot of time wondering why. Most of the readings involved poetry, though there were three musicians and a monologist. So there was variety. The audience was made up of friends and family (mostly friends--evidently parents of poets don't turn out for readings the way parents of athletes do for games). Yet there was no gushing. Instead, the audience treated the readers as if they were serious poets and performers, which, of course, they were. The ratio of good readings and performances to so-so was high.
All that was enough to make for the interesting experience I mentioned in my first paragraph. But what really made Friday evening different--and better--than other such events I've attended? I think it was the content of the material. These young poets (and that really fine monologist--I swear, that's a real word) were using writing to explore the world. They wrote about the differences between men and women, the existence of heaven and hell, war, and bigotry. Because their writing touched upon the world all of us in the audience live in, we could all take something from it. The so-called adult writers at the last few readings I've been to used writing to explore themselves. They wrote about dealing with estranged husbands and the deaths of relatives. Some of them cried through their readings. Their writing was a sort of therapy and was so personal that listeners couldn't take anything from it.
The kids were able to write of something beyond themselves. The adults weren't.
Friday night I listened to those young people talk about how they came to write what they were about to read, and I thought, "Wow. There are people in the world who write poetry in response to things they've experienced." Usually at those kinds of things I'm thinking, "I wonder when I can leave?"
Oh, and the high school students remembered to bring food, too.