Live poetry readings on the web: the Transatlantic Poetry Community

The Transatlantic Poetry Community on Google+ is doing something which, as far as I know, has never been done before on such a large scale (and with such major poets): delivering regular, live readings of poetry over the web. It uses “Hangouts on Air,” which are basically souped-up Google Hangouts saved instantly to YouTube, where past readings are archived. Each show so far has paired a poet from the U.S. with a poet from the U.K., each reading for 20 minutes to half an hour, followed by a joint Q&A in response to questions submitted on the Google page or on Facebook. Here are Michelle Bitting and Andrew Phillip; Jane Hirshfield and George Szirtes; and Marvin Bell and Esther Morgan.

The next reading is on Sunday, October 13, and features a half-dozen British poets: Katy Evans-Bush, Isabel Galleymore, Chris McCabe, Andrew Philip again, Paul Stephenson, and Claire Trévien. It’s part one of a two-part series in cooperation with Silk Road Review, which will conclude on Saturday, October 19.

I commend the organizer, Robert Peake, for what must be a tremendous amount of work, drawing on his expertise as a tech consultant as well as an American expatriate poet living outside of London. A page on his website is actually the best, most uncluttered place to bookmark for news and videos of the readings. It includes a stats counter for total views on the videos: 887 views in 43 countries as of October 4. His latest post on that page is a manifesto which outlines an ambitious program for expansion and partnering.

One does of course need a fairly good broadband connection to watch the readings live; I haven’t been able to watch it here in rural Pennsylvania, though I did enjoy the first two shows this summer when I was in London. Peake is a very good live host, and I’ve also been impressed by how politely but firmly he’s dealt with the narcissists on the Google community page who only want to post their own (inevitably terrible) poems. The show has had a few technical difficulties: an abrupt cut-off a few minutes from the end of the first show, and a muffled reading from Marvin Bell which required a make-up (non-live) reading video. Obviously for Hangouts on Air to work, care needs to be taken that participants have good cameras and microphones. But beyond the technical limitations are the inherent problems of reading poetry to an unseen, unheard audience. When I met Andrew Philip at the Filmpoem Festival in early August, I asked him how he’d handled that. He said something like, “It was strange at first, but I got used to it after a while.” I find I don’t enjoy the readings as much as I enjoy videos of readings before live audiences because I miss that feedback from the audience. Perhaps as the audience for Transatlantic Poetry builds, live reactions via Google, Facebook and Twitter can be given more prominence — integrated into a combined stream, perhaps, right beside or beneath the embedded video on Peake’s website? Barring that, I guess I’d prefer shorter readings and more time devoted to conversation between the poets and with the host. Another thing that seems slightly odd to me is the lack of any mention of Canada so far.

But enough of my obnoxious criticisms! Join the community and spread the word. I’ll conclude with a quote from the end of Peake’s manifesto:

What Transatlantic Poetry on Air ultimately represents is something greater than the sum of its parts. It is a manifestation of the growing trend of communication technology breaking down geographic barriers for poets and poetry-lovers to connect. Furthermore, the approach is economical, environmentally friendly, and accessible for those with restricted mobility.

In addition to the technological paradigm shift, enabling us to engage poets and their audiences in new ways, there is great interest overall for poets and poetry-lovers to connect globally. Poets on one side of the Atlantic recognise that they have much to gain from exposure to their counterparts across the sea. Transatlantic Poetry on Air therefore lies at the intersection between what poets and poetry-lovers increasingly want, and what is increasingly possible.

Transatlantic Poetry on Air aims to produce enjoyable, high-quality experiences throughout the lifecycle of each event for everyone involved. It aims also to be guided by its stated purpose and principles to evolve and expand over time, making it a fulcrum for the upliftment of global poetry in the twenty-first century.

Dave Bonta

Dave is the founder of Moving Poems, and posts videos for his own poems (along with lots of other stuff) at Via Negativa. Here's a bio.