Image by Ivy Sanders Schneider

A Skeptic at Church

hannah baer

Over the last four years, everyone I know in New York started going to poetry readings. Not occasionally, but all the time. People who aren’t even poets started sharing work at poetry readings regularly (myself included). Notably, there is no particular school of poetics to which the trend adheres. People go, sit, and try to pay attention to whatever is read. Attention is important, because these readings can be dreadfully boring. I’m usually bored by them, yet, like a skeptic at church, I go anyway. Why is it like this? 

The readings draw us because we long for steady, shared presence as economies of attention give way to regular economics: industrial efficiency fails to lift wages, while the speculative real estate market guts formerly thriving, experimental creative communities. (In the last two years alone, multiple collective living and art spaces in Providence and Baltimore were evicted and flipped.) And the internet — flickering screens bookending our waking hours — dulls the quality of our presence with ourselves, rendering reality more boring than even a poetry reading. The readings craze is less about poetics than something more elemental: deep hanging out. If stimulation itself has become boring, then understimulating work — the kind that doesn’t flash or send a notification — can be powerful.

Going forward, content will be less and less important, the innovations already automated, novelty itself platitudinous. Instead, the way we gather, gaze at, and speak to each other will be what moves us. Anything on a screen is meager relative to the deliciousness of living near your friends, seeing them multiple times a day, sharing coffee, cigarettes, errands, and silence. The avant-garde, the tendencies that push us forward in our thinking and feeling, will be social formations: shared activities, ways of coming together, ways of hanging out that are boring and unproductive, that allow attention without vampirizing it.

hannah baer is a writer and therapist based in New York.