What’s with the all-male (or nearly) audiences?

My reading yesterday evening hosted by the Rotary Club of Madras South had four women (not including me) and somewhere under forty members of the audience in total. My reading at Apparao Galleries as part of the Prakriti Festival, which was a sort of official Chennai debut, was exclusively male. So was the one at Landmark Spencer’s, with the exception of one Prakriti volunteer. That makes three out of five. The other two had mixed crowds.

I was nervous about Chennai audiences from the start, so you can imagine my trepidation at being confronted by a group of men at my first “proper” reading here (previous ones, organised by and for friends and without publicity, don’t count). My poetry is very, very female. We can get into a long discussion about what I mean by this and the general semantics of such a label, but the point is, it is. I’ve heard that right from when I began to do readings, but had never had to think about it until now.

What does it mean to be a poet who writes out of her femaleness, consciously or subconsciously, and to present this work to male audiences?

From the little experience I’ve had with the three readings I’ve mentioned, I can tell you right off the bat that it changes things. It did for me, anyway. I’ve never apologised for the darkness or explicitness of my work before. But I did, even as I heard myself saying “I don’t feel the need to justify what I write about or how I write about it”, I could feel the “but” creeping up. And it did.

But could the reason why I did that just be a Chennai thing, perhaps? Audiences known for their hostility to young women upstarts were what I anticipated, but the testosterone overload totally surprised me the first time, made me start wondering the second time, and had me somewhat bemused by the third. That being said, the only reading at which I felt truly in my element was my last one with the Prakriti Festival, which was at Distil. I warmed up so much I even read “Poem” and “A Horse Named Notoriety”, which were strictly off-limits otherwise. This had much to do with the audience, and I always feed off the audience’s energy (hmm… interesting, perhaps that would explain why someone told me he felt exhausted after yesterday’s reading. In a good way, though — he said he felt the same after hearing a recording of The Iliad). Plus, bars are always my favourite places to read in. Even off-hours ones.

Still, that doesn’t explain why so many more men than women have been coming to my readings. Sadly, I didn’t get the sense that the faghag thing entered the picture at all. I love gay men, and they generally like me. But that didn’t really seem to be the case. I think.

I have to admit I don’t know if I want the trend to continue. I haven’t enjoyed these few readings as much as I usually enjoy performance, as grateful as I am for the opportunity to have done them. But again, is it just a Chennai thing? Maybe what I used to enjoy so much before was not the readings themselves as much as the during and after-partying, something noticeably absent so far.

11 responses »

  1. I’m always fascinated by audiences. Being a westerner, I am far too ignorant of the culture where you are to make any solid statements about intent or interest.
    Here in the Midwest USA, I think men are rather drawn to female poets because of the strange ambiguities of gender prevalent in our society. Men are curious about what women have to say, we want to know the details – and curiosity in a man with any intellect usually outranks revulsion or inhibitions caused from idealism.
    It helps that you are joy to look at.
    Could the women be jealous? Or morally motivated to avoid being seen at your readings?
    Either way, I think I would discipline myself to be in the moment during any readings and let whatever bright energy flows flow. Too much red energy? Use blue to fuse the crowd into violet.
    Best of luck and blessings.

  2. David — Welcome to the blog. I am nowhere near wellknown enough to have people make moral decisions relating to my readings! As for jealousy, I really don’t know but I don’t like to think so.

    Your comment actually reminded me that at the Landmark Spencer’s reading, two middle-aged women had been milling around the bookshelves next to the “stage”, clearly waiting for the reading to begin. They sat down, and when I stood from the chairs set out for the audience and went to the podium, I saw them begin to whisper to one another while throwing frowns at me. One of them got up to speak to a member of staff, the other remained seated but continued to frown and raised her hand in a gesture that here means, “what on earth?” or “look at that”. They both left before the reading really got underway. Clearly, I was not who they had hoped for — and this was a decision made before a single poem was completed.

  3. I too think its a Chennai thing. I felt that it was an almost all-male audience at my third reading (at Landmark, Citi Centre), except for four females.. And as if that was not enough, the Christmas shopping crowd there was happy to join in, listen to me, and halfway through, start using their cellphone cameras.. (at least the men did) ;-) I would have said ‘ouch!’ if it was another time and place.

    Poetry appreciation apart, I don’t think I will be really wrong, if I say that its a fair amount of curiousity that draws men.

    Regarding your comment, I like the fact that you have bravely put it out for the world to see.. I am not sure even I will call the behaviour of those middle-aged women as jealousy per se (though I don’t rule it out as a factor)… What I feel is that people are used only to stereotypes… They think that being a poet means looking a certain way, being of a certain age, and god knows what other certainities. The fact that a poet is a person who uses words powerfully (or let’s even say, playfully), seems to be the last consideration on their minds. At my Landmark reading too, they were asking me (while I was sitting in the chairs meant for the audience): “Are you the poet?” (Thank god, they just stopped with grimacing looks in your case).. And displeased with the way I looked (perhaps) a lady and her son just left even before I started…


    The only saving grace is that there were four young women in an amorphous crowd of 30-40, all in their twenties (some of them even trickled in late), but when I was reading, it was their response that made me go on and on. .. and somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I think I had totally connected with them.

  4. Meena — Thanks for sharing your experience too. Part of why this sort of thing has been happening is probably because the poetry reading per se is relatively new in Chennai. The few that have happened so far have either involved someone really well-known or were held under the auspices of some body looked on with authority, like the British Council. So the idea that a poetry reading can be or steered by someone not yet famous and local (gasp!) is looked on with some amount of suspicion.

    As for the gender thing — it’s interesting, no? I hesitate to write it off as yet another female rivalry thing, but that has crossed my mind of course. We’ve discussed before some of the nastiness I have encountered in Chennai from women older than me. It’s incredibly saddening to know how petty and competitive and much more than just unsupportive other women can be.

  5. Two things, I think, come in to play here.

    A) Buzz – I thought Prakriti Poetry festival didn’t have much in terms of publicity – which is what will draw crowds. And with a larger crowd, chances are more women join, and spread the word and buzz and still larger crowd and you know, recursive loop.

    B) Language – Poetry for a lot of people here is Tamil poetry. I am going to assume motives and make generalisations here … but I’d wager that only a fraction of the poetry following audience in Madras follow English, and of that a smaller fraction are women.

    and then of course, are the other points already mentioned – curiosity, gender-benders and what not.

  6. Ravages — (A) You’re right about that, in a sense. I think they targeted specific crowds and went exclusively for them in terms of publicity (e.g. coverage in The Hindu) and they were successful to that minimal extent. They did, however, totally underestimate the power of Internet marketing, in my opinion. This could have made a huge difference.

    (B) Statistically, you’re probably right in terms of there being more interest in Tamil poetry than in English. But I think it’s more than that. I don’t think Chennai lacks numbers — I mean, just put together the English departments of a few colleges to put things in perspective. The average crowd at most poets’ events at the Prakriti festival was 6-8 people per reading. Where were the Eng Lit students, for a start? So it goes back to the other points raised, particularly what you said about publicity.

    Am so glad this discussion is happening! I’ve seen spoken word erupt out of nearly nowhere and create a “scene” in under a year in a city once before, and I am pretty confident Chennai is about to experience the same! With a little nudging along, of course… ;)

  7. let me share my views ….. most of the “readings” ,what i saw, where in the regular office hours and in working days ….. people like me normally venture out on weekends ….. probably that and a bit more publicity cud help ….

  8. Ram — A valid point. But fact is, that’s just how festivals are run, not just this one. There is a always a sense of the duration of the festival being set apart from routine life, with event after event (sometimes overlapping) taking place in its span. It is certainly true that only those with time to spare or enough interest to part with their leave days can participate as a result, but there is no way in which a schedule that accommodates every person out there can be made — those who want to just have to find a way to adjust theirs. The Prakriti readings were held every day for fifteen continuous days, at 11am, 4.30pm and 6.30pm. Quite a lot of options (something like a hundred readings in all, I think) for a person to pick from.

  9. Further to the discussion on language… A handful of the readings were in Tamil and Kannada. I attended one of Kuttirevathi’s, and it was the same issue with regards to attendance. She’s well-known, controversial even, so the reasons for this go back once more to the publicity thing. I should ask her about this gender thing — considering the feminism of, and flak for, her work, she may have some thoughts.

  10. Ravages — I kinda think it’s more disappointing that students themselves didn’t choose to attend in significant numbers. There were actually a few Prakriti readings in colleges, and I don’t think that the organisers needed to go out of their way to get college-goers interested at all. Wanting to get involved in something exciting and literary and local (accessible) is something that should come naturally to Eng and Eng Lit majors; shouldn’t the point of that kind of study be a love of lit? Furthermore, the events were free, with coffee, and most were in “happening” places like KNK Road — but even those factors weren’t enough. Says something about what Eng Lit tertiary education here is really about, or not about.

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