The Joy of Not Reading (or: Why I Won’t RATNYM This Year) by John S. Hall

[Poet & Musician John S. Hall on why he doesn’t want to read for the Annual New Year’s Day Marathon reading this year]


For the past 20 years or so, I’ve been asked to read at the Poetry Project’s New Year’s Marathon reading and I’ve readily accepted, each time.  It is an honor and a privilege to read among such a fantastic group of poets and musicians, and it has been thrilling, every year, to participate.  It is also nice to think that I am giving something to the Project, which has given me so much, and which does such great work.  But I’ll admit that each year, I expect to Read At The New Year’s Marathon (“RATNYM”); I tend to assume I will be doing it; and I tend to think that I’m entitled to do it, solely by virtue of having RATNYM’d so many times before.

But this year, I won’t.  I expect I’ll be asked again, but this year, I will decline. Rather than giving to the Project by RATNYMing, I will be giving to the Project by not RATNYMing.  I expect to experience an unparalleled sense of peace, joy, and equanimity.  For the few of you who may be curious, I will explain.

Earlier this year, at a meeting of the Poetry Project Board of Directors (of which I am a member), we discussed several issues regarding the 2012 marathon.  There were the usual issues, but this year, I felt more personally responsible than usual. Perhaps I’m getting older and more mature, but I doubt it.  I think I actually have gotten worse. Like most readers, I tend to go over the 2-minute time limit.  I have become one of those readers that I used to resent when I first used to RATNYM: a reader who thinks he (I think men do this more than women, but I have no statistics) is entitled to read for double the amount of time—or triple, or quadruple, or (in my case last year) more than quadruple the amount of time as the other readers.

Last year, I was on stage for over eight minutes.  2 x 4 = 8.  I read pretty fast, and I read a shorter version of the poem I had chosen for the reading, but I knew going up there that I was going to go well over two minutes.  I thought I’d be about six minutes. That would be triple the time, but I thought that was acceptable. Why? You might want to chalk it up to typical heterosexual white male privilege, but in many other arenas, I am a typical guilty straight white male liberal.  I think it’s more likely that I hadn’t really thought about how the Marathon is a zero sum game—the more time I take, the less time there is for other readers, the more off-schedule the whole event becomes: pizza breaks are postponed or canceled, less money is raised, more stress is injected into the atmosphere.  It’s a cascade failure.

There is another problem in making the Marathon function as it should as both a fundraiser for the Project and as a showcase for established and up and coming poets. I alluded to it earlier: too many established poets think they are entitled to read, simply by virtue of having read before.  Once again, the zero-sum problem is obvious: if too many established poets RATNYM, not enough newer poets can RATNYM.  The Project includes at least 30 poets per year who have never read at the Marathon before.  But how can they be included, if people like me read every year?

I could go on (obviously), but I have already broken a promise to keep this at 500 words,* so I will close with this suggestion: if you are asked to RATNYM this year, why not ask yourself if you would feel better not RATNYMing? Think of all the personal time you’ll save not thinking about what you will read. Think about how you will avoid having to experience the shame of going over the two minute limit (I understand there may be a time keeper this year).  Think about how no matter how many times you chase that high, RATNYMing will never feel as orgasmic as it did the first time.

*217 words over the quota. I really am a pig.


-John S. Hall

(Click on John’s name to see a photograph of him reading for 2 minutes back in 2009. Photo by Houri Boumediene. John S. Hall has perfomed and/or read his work all over the United States, as well as London, Germany, and The Netherlands. He has recorded over fifty spoken word pieces with music, mostly as vocalist and lyricist for the band, KING MISSILE, and KING MISSILE (DOG FLY RELIGION). He’s the author of JESUS WAS WAY COOL and DAILY NEGATIONS, both on Soft Skull Press.