a major problem I have with graduate poetry-writing programs in general: the lack of focus on public reading skills, as though those weren’t integral to our work as professional poets. As a PhD student, I’m not required (nor even encouraged) to take public speaking or drama courses. Nowhere in the curricula is it acknowledged that, because we poets have a devastatingly small audience matched by terrible underrepresentation in book stores, most of us will sell the majority of our books (if we’re lucky enough to publish some) at poetry readings. Shouldn’t that fact be considered when deciding what professional poets should learn in school?
What makes for a failed poetry reading? Among those Jessica had experienced, readings where the poets:
1 – clearly didn’t care. I’ve heard so many of my colleagues say “I’m such a bad reader,” like it wasn’t a big deal; like it couldn’t be changed with some work and practice. I’m a little offended by this, honestly. People come to the venue, they take their seats and (hopefully) sit quietly and respectfully so that you might share your art with them. Don’t we owe people enough respect to try to do a good job, entertain them, or at least convey our ideas well?
2 – mumbled, didn’t enunciate or articulate words, spoke way to quickly or didn’t project at all. This is obvious. Poetry can be difficult enough to understand even when the listeners get the words. Help the kids out.
3 – over-explained the poems. Personally, I sometimes make jokes about situations or people in my poems before I say them. It’s my defense mechanism. But when a poet tells more than is absolutely necessary about a poem, it robs the audience of what Josh called “the pleasure of revelation.”
4 – had no stage presence at all. This can mean a few different things. Some poets shrink into themselves. Some ramble. Some seem scared out of their minds.
5—speak in a poetry voice. You know the one. The lilting up at the end of every line. The pauses in strange places. The absolute inability to realize that poetry (though not prose) is written in sentences, usually, or at least phrases, and might benefit from being vocalized as such.
6 – don’t understand their audience. When Jim Shepherd, an amazing fiction writer I just read for the first time this year, came to USC, we had a really funny conversation about choosing the wrong piece for the crowd. “Their eyes glaze over,” he said, blanching at the memory. Once fiction writers start a story, though, it’s hard for them to stop or turn back. As poets, we have the opportunity to cater our reading to the crowd, watch reactions, choose poems more on the fly depending on how it’s going. All it takes is a little observation.
there are endless ways to be winning, but the main one just seems to be caring about the audience, and realizing that what we do is an art of communication, whether on the page or in front of a microphone. And besides, I’ve always wanted to buy more books after good poetry readings than bad ones. But certainly none of this matters if the work isn’t good in the first place. So that’s obviously the priority.