Who Is a Funhouse Mirror, Exactly?

I’m reading Inferno: A Poet’s Novel, by Eileen Myles, which I got because I went to this art thing at PS1 and Eileen was reading when we walked in and she was really, really good. I’ve been to a couple readings lately where, even though the author killed it and the audience had a great time, no one bought books. I think it’s a DC thing, maybe, where people treat readings like lectures instead of commercials. So Eileen was good and I was feeling grumpy about people who go to readings but don’t buy the books of the authors they enjoy and now I’m reading Inferno.

I felt weirdly exposed at this art show. It wasn’t a normal reading, with a Q&A and a signing, and then everyone leaves. It was part of a long performance thing, so one reader finished and then the next reader or performer was up and the previous reader was milling around, getting water, watching the performance, whatever. I’d just listened to Eileen Myles reading, and then bought her book, but she was still in the room, watching people, and being part of the crowd. That was weirdly disconcerting, or exhilarating, and the more I read of Inferno, the more I understand, maybe, why.

Being in a room with a poet, or with any writer I guess, is like being a room with a giant funhouse mirror. But a funhouse mirror that may or may not show you your reflection, and that definitely won’t show you anything right away. Or maybe I mean a black hole, because it’s taking light in but not reflecting it back? This is not a good analogy. But I think hanging out with writers is a narcissistic experience. You know writers are paying attention to their surroundings in a way other people aren’t, and if you’re part of those surroundings, you’re at least potentially material. I spend a huge amount of time with writers or doing writerly things, and the mirror thing never really hit me because they’re my friends and they know me and are voluntarily in my presence and we talk about ourselves with each other all the time, so I mostly know what they think about me and they mostly know what I think about them. But being at an art show with a poet, and then reading that poet’s book and realizing that she writes these insightful, brutal things about the experiences she’s had makes me feel self-conscious and exposed. And then also vain, because as much as I’m hardwired to believe everyone is looking at me all the time (I mean, I am me, what else is there to think?) I don’t honestly believe that most people take much notice of me. Particularly when I’m in a room full of art people at PS1.

This is a really roundabout way of saying the show/reading was really successful, because it made me uncomfortable in exactly the way I think contemporary art tries to make the participant/audience uncomfortable, and Inferno is keeping me feel disconcerted and self-aware. I wonder what the experience of reading it would be like if I hadn’t been to the show, and I wonder what the show would have been like if I hadn’t bought the book, but mostly I’m really loving the way they work together.

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