05 November 2009

Rebecca Solnit and Rhyming

Last night I drove in to town to attend the Rebecca Solnit talk that I mentioned a few days ago. Overall the experience was disappointing. The talk was interesting, a sort of spin on her new book - which I've mentioned here. It prompted me to think about some things that will be important in some papers I have in mind to write. But Solnit read the bulk of the talk even though her extemporaneous voice is so much more engaging than her reading. Indeed, I think that is true for nearly everyone. What was troubling is that the turn out was modest - a cavernous lecture hall that was at best a fifth full. Not a soul in the first half dozen rows. On top of that, it seems that the organizer was ill and could not attend. So things were understandably unsettled; but there was no coordinated 'Plan B' in place. For the always awkward minutes before the talk, Solnit stood alone at the front of the room, eventually Margorie Searl [1] [2] stepped up and gamely read the organizer's introduction, but then Solnit's mic didn't work, there was no water on the podium, and so on.

The oddest thing was that the audience was more or less non-responsive - at he end of a fifty minute talk, two people asked questions.* But Solnit's thesis is provocative and she seemed eager to engage. No response. It was very, very weird. I don't want to come off as a moralist here. In large part the lack of participation seemed to be due to the Oprah-Maury-like way the space was set up with a mic on a long stand on each side of the auditorium down very close to the stage. I think people were reluctant to rappel down the steeply sloped stairs. And I think they felt weird at the prospect of standing three feet from the speaker, back to the audience talking into a microphone. I'd say that arrangement needs a serious re-thinking. That said, the audience seemed disengaged and uncomfortable until Solnit was properly domesticated behind a table for purposes of signing books. Then there was a long-ish line. Folks seem comfortable with semi-commercial dyadic interactions but lost when it comes to expressing ideas in public.


Solnit started her talk by quoting a line from this poem by Seamus Heaney; I thought it would be a good thing to pass along.
by Seamus Heaney

Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home

History says, Don't hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.

Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.
if there's fire on the mountain
or lightning and storm
and a god speaks from the sky.

That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.
Solnit is considerably more sanguine than Heaney about the prospects for fortuitous convergences, of rhyming - and she is right, it seems to me, that it happens, from some at least, more than once in a lifetime. And, while she did not say so, it is true too that while poetry and art cannot fully remedy the harms done to people, they can go a long way toward mitigating, for a time, some of the worst effects.
* I was not one of them; this is, more or less, a matter of personal policy at such events. I think campus speakers are for students and that too much talking by adults (read faculty) dampens the prospects that students will leap in. Students are too ready to defer to faulty at such affairs, and faculty are too often oblivious to how dominating (and boring) they are in conversation.

** From: Seamus Heaney. The Cure at Troy ~ A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.

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Blogger Masha said...

I often struggle with that problem - of how to encourage people to participate?

Some conferences I've been to skip the whole question thing, and ask participants to sms questions - the idea being that the speaker can answer those at the end.

I've never seen this work - I certainly would struggle to articulate myself in an sms.

It sounds as though the speaker here did not know how to elicit questions. It usually takes positive input from the speaker - actually asking the audience questions to get them going.

As for faculty dominating - I'm guilty of that myself. But if you can do it right, you can ask a question that get the students going, and help them feel comfortable to ask something themselves. Best way is to ask a "stupid" question. You know, a simple question that you know the students are wondering about but might feel is too basic to speak out about.

06 November, 2009 07:07  

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