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?
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