One pandemic event had attendees from Germany, South Africa, and Hawaii: “people were up at like three in the morning to come here, or a version of coming, to hear this author.”
“There are no separations anymore between days, even if you watch the sun rise and set, time has gone into an unsegmented state. It’s distressing one day and it’s nothing the next.”
Sometime just before the sun set, and after she had finished reading from her new book Love and I—but who knows when exactly—acclaimed poet Fanny Howe reflected on the amorphous temporality of these crazy times.
Last Friday, as part of Brookline Booksmith’s now-virtual event series, Howe read alongside Susan Barba, whose new collection Geode concerns a “series of encounters with geological time.”
Both books and readings wrestled with the difficulty of representing temporality. Barba’s ambitious attempt to capture in verse a sense of the vastness of the Earth’s eons of ever-shifting rock—it’s “blue-green grid of constant revolution”—runs against humanity’s and her own limited perspective: “Oak, whose girth / exceeds my reach // forever I am / at your feet, / looking up.”
Howe’s eclectic yet philosophical collection seems to be equally concerned with time’s in-between spaces, across, for instance, one’s own life. In one poem, she references Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, musing on a child’s movement from the latter experience to the former, especially children trapped in poverty.
Howe constructs several brilliant long poems from short ones loosely linked, “like in a dream” where disjointed moments carry some common line of thought. In one stanza, the rooms of the house might as well be metaphors for compartmentalized memory: “Downstairs, cries of lust. Up here, a requiem mass / And light to lead the clouds home / to the past.”
For me, the virtual event was a respite from cloudy pasts wafting through an unsegmented present: the book reading became a sort of anchor in time. In an interview, Alex Schaffner, events director at Brookline Booksmith, noted how the store’s digital readings started fairly organically from a need by authors and the public to connect. After Schaffner spent “the first couple of weeks … cancelling everything I had booked for the last four to six months,” the store promoted an event by an author who virtually hosted a cancelled event herself.
By early April, the Booksmith started booking more and more digital events. By mid-April, Schaffner said, they had “gone from mostly boosting other people’s events to doing a 50-50 split where we’re collaborating with people who are using their own platforms … and events that we are hosting on our Crowdcast platform.”
Among other things, Crowdcast allows for online chatting and for audience members to upvote questions. At Friday’s event, the audio was crystal clear, but the picture was fuzzy throughout—something Barba herself commented on at one point, suggesting listeners close their eyes. No digital platform is perfect, and despite the occasional pixelation, the interactive features improved the experience in other ways: people jumping in with comments, as Schaffner said, “gives it a Shakespearean vibe.”
Now, the store has virtually (pun intended) “the same level of robustness in our schedule that we normally do in store. So we have something, at least in the next few weeks, almost every weeknight.”
Putting up digital events instead of in-person ones also implies other changes to normal routine. While the in-person events were booked months in advance, virtual events get booked only about a week ahead of time. People also sign up at the very last minute; their “numbers usually double in like the forty minutes before the event starts,” Schaffner said. But then, there are fewer physical logistics: “you do not have 150 chairs to put away, you don’t have to fold any tables.”
Another big difference: digital events give the store wider geographical reach. Half of their events involve authors who never would have been in Brookline. One event, Schaffner said, had attendees from Switzerland, Germany, South Africa, and Hawaii: “people were up at like three in the morning to come here, or a version of coming, to hear this author.” Schaffner hopes to “bring some of what we’ve learned in this moment” into future planning. … and keep our audience geographically broad.”
Overall, the events are helping the store in these difficult times. “Tracking sales information for events is much more difficult now,” but Schaffner says, “we have seen the reach of our online sales in general change and expand.” Schaffner emphasizes “a fresh gratefulness in virtual events in this moment. Gratefulness for the sense that there is still community and that people still get to share with and talk to and hear from people that they care about and people whose interests they share.”
As if in direct response to Schaffner’s insistence on the interactiveness of these digital events: Barba obliged a commenters response to read “River,” also my favorite poem of the collection. Following the reading, someone asked Barba about the refrain: “Stay with me now.” Barba repeats the phrase in between lists of species threatened by the destruction of the once-thriving Colorado River: “Hot Creek pebblesnail / Moapa pebblesnail / Pahranagat pebblesnail / Grand Wash springsnail / Overton assiminea // stay with me now.”
Like our unsegmented days of quarantine isolation, an endless list can be beautiful, but it can also be, as Barba said, “a little tiresome.” What do you do if you want to both lean into the monotony and remind people that the poet’s still there as a guide? “I wanted to introduce a human voice,” Barba said, “It was the attempt to connect with the reader, I’m still here, behind the list, behind this litany, I’m holding your hand through it.”
For people who love books and miss talking with their friends about them, these events are a little bit like that—a brief check-in of human connection amid the litany of unseparated days.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project.
Max is a PhD student in English and American literature at BU. Previously, he worked at the NGO GiveDirectly, an organization that sends cash transfers, no strings attached, directly to extremely poor families. In 2014, he studied and wrote poetry in Wellington, NZ on a Fulbright scholarship.