Eyewitness Poetry

The Almanac
March 4, 1997

Imagine a poetry reading attended by over 4,000 people.

A couple of weeks ago, that's exactly what students, poets, and other writers at Penn had an opportunity to experience with a Saturday night reading at the Kelly Writers House that was broadcast live on WXPN. The program was the first of a planned monthly series of broadcasts which will take place while classes are in session.

The idea came from a conversation with Dr. Al Filreis, the Penn English professor who is faculty director of Kelly Writers House. Shortly after he joined the WXPN Policy Board, Al was describing to me the Saturday night scene at Writers House, which had become a campus-wide gathering place for poets and other writers to share their work. It was common, he said, for a couple of dozen people to show up for one of these readings.

We both started wondering out loud, "Would it be possible to capture the spirit of these gatherings in a live broadcast?"

On February 15 over a dozen poets were willing to step up to the mike and try itstudents, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members. For posterity, I'd like to record that the poets on scene for this historic "first" included:

Al Filreis
Bob Perelman
Shawn Walker
Leah Sheppard
Clare Bayard
Jeff Wachs
Nijmie Dzurinko
Patrick Kelly
Josh Schuster
Nate Chinen
Kristen Gallagher
Dave Deifer
Jennifer Connolly
Linh Dinh
Lisa Coffman

Sarah Giulian from the Writers House and Joe Taylor from WXPN acted as producers and Jeff Wachs, an English major who graduated from Penn in December, was the host.

Plus, a couple of dozen people attended the reading, which was on the air live for an hour starting at midnight.

Al Filreis says that being involved in the production was an outstanding educational experience for everyone involved, including the students. "This is the ultimate practicum for a student of the humanities. Even if 'Live' had been a flop, the educational exercise involved in students bringing their art collaboratively to this exciting medium was well worth the effort. They learned in detail about the reception of art and about the various practical contexts we can provide it."

I believe this program, and this kind of programming, fits WXPN's image as the region's "cutting edge" station, caring not just about music, but about contemporary art of all kinds. And it's an interesting project for producers, because there isn't much known about how to do this kind of thing on the radio. They have to invent it as they go along, so the program will probably change from month to month as we try different approaches. It's fun for the producers to work on for that reason.

It's also interesting for listeners because of the surprise of finding poetry on the radio. That's really not done very much any more. There are some spoken word programs on public radio--WHYY has "Joe Frank, Work in Progress" each week, for example--but these programs are the exception, and a surprise to listeners when they find them.

We scheduled the broadcast for midnight on Saturday night partly for that surprise value. It's an interesting time for something like this. Imagine what people who bump into the program are likely to be doing: Driving home from dinner and a movie? Cruising along the Pennsylvania Turnpike after spending the day with relatives?

Arbitron audience data indicate that 3,900 people normally listen to WXPN at this time of night in the Philadelphia area alone. There are hundreds more in Allentown and Harrisburg, and (through the station in Maryland that rebroadcasts our signal) still more listeners on the Eastern Shore and in Baltimore. The wide geographic distribution of listeners probably adds another interesting element to the program. Poets can usually see their audience when they read; and it's not that hard to imagine a listener in a nearby neighborhood. But our poets' work is being heard across three states, in several major cities. That's tough to visualize!

We've speculated that while some listeners who hear the program will be poetry fans, most will be people who rarely read or hear poetry. So this is not only a great opportunity for poets to reach a new audience, larger than any live audience is likely to be for just about any poet; it's a powerful chance to attract new readers, and to interest writers in a form they might not have considered.

Two more editions of "Live from the Kelly Writers House" are scheduled for the remainder of this year, on March 22 and April 12. The program starts at midnight. Some seats may be available at the broadcast; for information about that call 746-POEM (9748).