SMC Tries To Bring Bigger Audiences To Poetry Readings

Irvin Meneses stood calmly defiant at the dais. He wore a grey beanie and a T-shirt displaying a cartoon image of President Donald Trump being shot in the head. Meneses recited his poem with nonchalance, dropping words into the audience like hand grenades.

“Fuck all the fools that live day to day,” Meneses read. “I want the rich idiots, I want the rich idiots who won’t complain.”

The poetry reading, Surreal Borderlines & Portals to Awareness, was held on April 18 in Stromberg Hall. Though sparsely attended, the event reflected the trends of diversity—of both poet and form—that its organizers hope will carry poetry into the millennial world.

Meneses’s poem about the gentrification of Los Angeles, told from the perspective of a real estate developer, fit well with the event’s themes of immigration, xenophobia and otherness.

David Burak, a Santa Monica College (SMC) English professor, organized the event. “There’s been a general consensus among...professors and scholars that there's been a back and forth between [the areas of] Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and the United States for ten thousand years,” Burak said in describing the inspiration for the event. “So the fact that we have borderlines that now Trump wants to put a huge wall on is surreal. And wrong.”

The poets came from diverse backgrounds, but also performed diverse styles of poetry. While some maintained a conventional style, many took on a more performance-oriented spoken word approach.

Andrew Jones, an SMC student, primarily performs as a rapper. “I am a rapper, so it’s a little different than how you normally hear this,” Jones said as he launched into his spoken-word piece normally performed over music.

While poetry readings at SMC may be trying to speak to a wider audience, only about 30 people sat in the 100-plus seat auditorium, a testament to the dwindling interest in live poetry readings.

“It seemed there was more energy when we’d put together these types of poetry readings,” said Mario Padilla, an SMC English professor who performed at the reading. “Today was really the least amount of people that there’s ever been to one of these readings.”

Padilla tries to encourage more participation in the poetry scene by modernizing the way he teaches writing workshops. “You have to transform. Just giving a straight out poetry creative writing workshop, it’s just not enough for a millennial crowd. Their poetry’s coming from different areas.”

Grace, a student of Padilla’s who declined to give her last name, contends that poetry is alive but just in different forms.

“I think that poetry is in different forms nowadays… Even Kendrick Lamar and different rappers and songwriters do a lot of poetry of their own, and so we might ingest it in different ways,” Grace said. “I also think social media, through the captioning of photos, I read a lot of poetry through that all day.”

Still, the poetry department is trying to attract larger audiences to live events. Padilla said, “The next time let’s really make sure that the kids know we’re gonna bring in more spoken word artists, we’ll bring in a couple song writers, bring in maybe a rap artist, and really give them the kind of material that they would appreciate along with standard poetry and the stuff that we did up here today. I mean that’s never going to go away, but I just think you have to fill in with the other stuff as well.”

Padilla gestured to the largely empty auditorium. “We’re not getting as many people to come to these things. We used to have the art auditorium filled,” he said. “I’d say that, little by little, it’s hard to get people to a poetry reading.”

Wilfred Doucet, another SMC professor who performed at the reading, took the stage. His second poem, The Ghost on 90th, explores the disappearance of local businesses in Inglewood as the the city builds its new stadium. It asks if the modern world has room for the simpler days of the past.

“You afraid someone might hear? We’re the only ones here. I didn’t know this place was here, Doucet recited. His long dreadlocks are beginning to grey. “We’re never the only ones here. The ghosts watch and remember. We’re never the only ones here.”

Surreal Borderlines & Portals to Awareness is part of SMC’s Literary Talks and Readings series.

To learn about upcoming events visit Literary Talks and Readings events online.