Poetry via Videoconference—By Louise Carson

Back in the old days—pre-March 2020—we used to have these literary events called book launches, festivals, and poetry readings, which often included open mics. People would gather at little cafes downtown, and/or, in my case, on or off the West Island of Montreal, or in art galleries, book shops, even people’s homes. Sometimes, authors and poets would travel long distances to attend such events in other regions, provinces or (rarely) countries. Sometimes we’d get paid, sometimes not. But it was all stimulating. Nerve-wracking until one had completed one’s contribution to the evening, but enjoyable.

Now, after a tentative, sometimes fumbling start, the various hosts who were willing to make the transition to virtual events have made it, and we have a plethora of online events to choose from. As I write this mid-July, I am registered to attend before the end of the month: two open mics, a workshop, and a literary group’s business meeting. And because I’m a writer and notice things, and because these video conferences put us all into a fishbowl, it’s become evident that we are still on the upward slope of a pretty steep learning curve vis-à-vis etiquette.

One of my regular Zoom poetry groups is made up of very docile members. When the moderator says mute, we mute. Well, most of us mute—there’s always one, isn’t there? The idea being, and this may or may not be true, that mics left open weaken the signal for receiving the one mic that should be open. Many open mics are certainly distracting. A sneeze or cough can displace the crucial emotional moment of a poem.

Another of my groups is the opposite of the one above. About half of us mute. The other half, not so much. Some of the participants are married couples who chat with each other; others have, on occasion, set up their computer at the kitchen table, where they can be observed preparing snacks, moving from fridge to sink, muttering, laughing. The poor designated reader struggles on, their voice fading, returning, fading, returning.

At one conference, there was an attack. A poet, possibly frightened of participating in her first live video presentation, and unable to make herself visible (although it was not her turn to read), panicked and, unfortunately, made herself only too audible as she accused the moderator of purposely shutting her out. “How could you do this to me?” and other similar comments were made. The moderator didn’t even blink. Peace was eventually restored, and we finally saw the unabashed poet smirking, preening for the camera.

Then there are the readers who start each line strongly, only to fade away, so you get the verb perhaps or the subject, but not the object or conclusion. It’s most frustrating for the listener. We, as a group, don’t like to interrupt the reader. Sadly, in one instance the partially inaudible poet was the first reader of the night. I just assumed it was me alone who couldn’t hear him. Everyone else did likewise, I guess, as each subsequent reader was quite audible. We had inadvertently conspired against him. At least I didn’t have the nerve to praise him after the reading—like some. I honestly hadn’t heard enough to have an opinion.

We must now turn to the visual component of Zoom. Where should I look when reading? At myself? At various members of the audience as I do when reading in person? Or at the camera above my screen? If I look there, I have to raise the text from which I’m reading, which then obscures my face. My compromise is to pretend it’s a live reading. I study my text and look up briefly—only to be distracted by a comment box from the chat stream briefly popping into view at the bottom of my screen. I know it’s about me and my words, so I want to look, but if I look I’ll lose my spot. I only did this once. Now it’s “Look away! Look away!”

Another visual consideration is how do I and my room look to others? I tend, in life and online, to go for neat. I rejoice in the fact that I don’t need to wear a bra for Zoom. I’ve got a nice picture-free pale green wall behind me, which could function, I sometimes imagine, as a green screen, whereon a clever computer manipulator, which I’m not, could project anything. I could be underwater, in outer space, in a monkey house…

At last night’s Zoom I noticed my floor fan, cooling my back, had made it onto the set and appeared to be attached to my left shoulder, lending it a larger than normal appearance. Innocuous, I thought, and shrugged. But then, more than once, I caught a glimpse of one of my cats, desiring to position himself in the room’s one window, there to view the chipmunks and robins and chickadees in the large cedar outside, leaping from my bed through the air, also behind my left shoulder—a ginger blur. So not monkeys, fish, stars—but cats.

Let us now discuss Zoom visual no-nos. Please don’t recline while you’re listening to others. It’s too intimate, like we’re all in bed, or soon to be, together. Please, please, if you’re male and wearing short shorts, don’t sit on the sofa with your legs on the coffee table facing your computer. Avert eyes, all.

It’s time to mention the hosts. With grace and persistence, you are allowing us to connect, not only within our local groups but with far-flung writers and poets, some of whom join us in the middle of their nights. From South America, Nepal, or even, far off Kingston (Ontario). So hats off to you, hosts, as you pilot us through this strange new literary landscape.


Louise Carson’s latest books are Dog Poems (Aeolus House 2020) and The Cat Possessed, a mystery (Signature Editions 2020). She lives in St. Lazare, Quebec.

Photo credit: Yasmine Carson (headshot)

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