Friday, September 19, 2008

Sunday Poetry Reading: A Response

I have been busy this week with poetry, a Garrison Keillor reading, and tightening up my mss-- lefty loosy, righty tighty..

But let's discuss the poetry reading I went to recently. As a poet and reader, I learned a lot from it. What to do at a reading and what not to do.

The poetry reading was a beautiful home on Bainbridge Island with 4 poets from UW Press -Suzanne Paola, Bruce Beasley (her husband, I learned), Christopher Howell, & John Witte, whose new book just came out. All very strong poets with big resumes and many books.

Each reader had a different style and I thought I'd talk about what I liked and what could have been improved with the reading. Because I don't want any poet to feel awkward if self-googling and finding this critique, I will discuss what I liked and disliked without naming the poet personally.

What I liked at the poetry reading -- (oh and to make things easier for my typing fingers, I refer to the poet(s) as "they" instead of him/her, etc. )

Things I liked at the poetry reading--

When poets uses humor to connect with the audience and don't take themselves too seriously.


When they read poems of various lengths


When they talk about how a poem evolved or came to be. In fact, as a poet, I love this.


When they talk to the audience and not above us (this is both figuratively and literally).


When a poet is able to mix heavier issues into the poems they read without making the audience feel as if they want to find the nearest razorblade and slit their risks. I don't think you want to depress your audience (but I do like heavier topics along with lighter ones), so even if your poems are dark or difficult, your personality does not have to be.


When they stay to the time limit (they *mostly* did this)


When they read poems that are interesting to listen to. I know that seems obviously, but some poems need time to sit with. If you read one of these poems, please help us into your poem, don't just begin without grounding us and giving us some info to help us through the poem so we don't get lost.


Read poems that are both lighter and ones that are a little more intense, vary the tone and the mood, and make transitions accordingly so the audience goes along with you. I love it when a poet reads a very dark poem then says, "This next poem is much happier..." and the audience laughs because they want you to stay with them.

It bothers me if someone reads a poem about a miscarriage then goes directly into a poem about a funny experience with apples because there was no transition and I'm still holding onto sadness.


When poets mention what book they are reading from.


When poets read old work and not just "the new stuff." It also sells more books.


When poets seems excited to be there and have an energy about them. Even if they are not energetic people, to try to bring that to reading instead of going up there with the one expression face and reading.


When it feels as if this is the first time they've read the poem--even if it's not, even if it's the 1000th time they've read the line, they continue to breathe life into their poem and not act tired with it. (most of the poets that read did this and I appreciate it!)

What I didn't like--

When there is no introduction of who the poet is and their work and they jump right into the poems as if we know who they are and what they are doing. Give me a little handshake before you take off your coat.


Reading a long long poem in the same voice, tone, and not really helping me into that poem. You will lose me if something else happens in the room (aka a jetski goes by outside on the water, the caterer brings in yummy food) and I won't be able to get back into the poem and will end up thinking about the architecture of the room, what kind of wood the beams are made of.


Breathe and allow the audience to breathe too. Your time is not sack to fill with stuff, but a tray to put your poems on orderly and with thoughtfulness.


More poems does not = a better reading.


Breaking a promise-- when a poet tells me they are going to read 2 more poem--actually asks if it's okay if they read two more poems (and the audience nods and says yes)--then goes on to read those 2 more poems and asks if they can read more and does so--I want to run up the mic and say "You said TWO poems..."

It's bad form and a bad habit to tell the audience one thing then go on to do something else. You have set up an expectation (hoorah, 2 more poems and I get to have appetizers!) then broken it. While many more grown-up audience members will be fine with this, there will be someone like me (who loves poetry, not sitting) who will be rolling her eyes and will not buy your book b/c you annoyed her because she has sat for 2 hours at a poetry reading and is hungry.

And then calling us "such a patient audience" does not help your cause. I did not hear that last poem anyway because I was thinking about the little chicken salsa appetizers and the peach wrapped in prosciutto and basil.


Do not think you are interesting just because you are a) on stage b) a poet. *Be* interesting, doesn't assume it comes with the package. Oh and interesting poems can be made uninteresting if you read them that way.


Don't be so hard to find after the reading. There are people who may have bought your book and are looking for you.

Actually, the press should have said something about this, where to find the poets to sign books afterwards, there were 4 of them and they just scattered so I wasn't able to even say "nice job" afterwards because they were lost in the crowd.


So there it is. It was a long reading (we arrived at 3 and left at 5:45). Not all of it was reading, but a lot of it was.

But it was a good reading with various styles and voices. And I did buy two books by the same poet-- Christopher Howell, I bought Light's Ladder actually 2 copies, one for me and one for a friend having a birthday (hi N!) The book won the Washington State Book Award for poetry in 2006 or 2005. I will say that of all the poets who read, I was most interested and connected with Christopher Howell's poetry. I'm really enjoying the book too.

* * *

Tell me, what do you like best at readings that some poets do and what do you like least?


  1. I love the talking between poems, but I like when they read the poem first, then talk about it because some poets tend to over explain their poem.

  2. I like stories. I know a poet who has read on the island, and he told the most amazing story about one of the readings he did there. Stories make the poet seem more real.

    I do not like the way some poets think they have to be serious and project the so-called image of a poet.

    It's rare when it happens, but I really hate when I get to a reading and I discover the poet is a worse poet than me. Maybe it's because Idon't get out that much, but it has happened twice I can remember, and it was really annoying to sit and be polite knowing that this 'guy' sucked. I suppose it's how other poets feel when they hear me read my poems.

  3. What draws me in most, when I'm listening to a poet read, is when they seem to be present in the poems they're reading, the poem seems to speak through the poet, the poet's ego has temporarily left the room.

    I enjoy when poets tell interesting stories or information before or after the poems, though I don't necessarily need for them to do that. (When I read poems to audiences, I tend to say fairly little between the poems, though I don't have a rigid rule about it. If a particular poem needs a word or two to introduce it, or if it might help to transition the mood from one poem to another, then I'll do that.)

    I like it when poets read poems that seem in some way relevant to something I've experienced or felt or thought at some point or other in my life.

    I'm really put off by poets who seem amused at their own cleverness or wittiness, always grinning to themselves through the reading.

    I lose patience quickly with poets who spend more time introducing and explaining a poem than it takes to read the actual poem. (My rule of thumb -- if the introduction or explanation to the poem takes more than 10 percent of the time it takes to read the poem itself, then you need to work on the poem some more, it's not finished yet.)

    I get impatient with poets who haven't prepared for the reading adequately, e.g. paging through their poems wondering what they should read next. In my experience, poets who do that also frequently go over the time limit.

    (Of course I also make choices when I'm reading, to read one poem and not another, but I always choose the basic list of poems ahead of time, including a few extra or alternative ones, and I decide quickly as I go along whether to read each poem or skip it and go to the next one.)

    I dislike it when a writer (a fiction writer, in the case I'm thinking of) does the entire reading looking down at the page and mumbling softly to himself (this while standing at the mike podium), then insults one of the audience members for not being able to hear what he's mumbling. (True story, not pretty.)

    Or when a poet talks endlessly in a monotone, endlessly explaining what the poem is about, then starts reading the poem with no change in tone or manner whatsoever, so it's impossible to tell when the talk leaves off and the poem begins, and then at the end of the poem, continues with further explanation in the same dry monotone. (Also a true story. I left during the intermission and went home.)

  4. I don't mind when poets introduce poems, but I do actually prefer it when the poems can stand on their own, without introduction.

    [But then I'm an old Deadhead, and one of the things I loved about the Grateful Dead was that they hardly ever said anything between songs! :-)]

    And I agree with Lyle Daggett: paging through things looking for poems is really annoying!

  5. If the reader is a poet or iction/nonfiction writer, I've heard read multiple times (full time faculty at my MFA program, for example) I don't want the same stuff as the prior semester. Make it new. I have heard the same piece about a kitchen appliance 4 times in 2 years during MFA program readings.

    I really like poets who will tell you necessary details before the poem, but sometimes the buildup is so thrilling that I get lost in the introduction and not in the poem.


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