Poets looking for guidance on how to best conduct their readings tend to rely on suggestions made for public speakers. Understandably, since there is much overlap, and there are so many resources for public speakers on the internet. Are they all good for poets, though?
There is one public speaking tip that seems to have been endlessly repeated and drummed into poetry readers, which is: ‘make eye contact with your audience.’ As one random but representative public speaking guide out there says:
the audience is there to see you and to hear what you have to say. They deserve to be included and to be made welcome. Lack of eye contact creates a barrier between you and the audience; it makes you look untrustworthy, shifty or unsure of yourself; it drags down your presentation and sucks the life out of it.
So why doesn’t this necessarily apply to poets? Sure, when you come up to the podium and introduce yourself, or when you’re chit-chatting about a poem before reading it – absolutely, make eye contact with your audience. But when you’re reading? If you can’t do it well (which usually means you have memorized chunks of your poems ahead of time so you don’t need to look down at the book), I say, don’t do it. Some people can do it well, but for many – most – people, I submit that the need to keep looking at the audience leads to awkward head-bobbing, meaningless unfocused millisecond glances in the general audience direction, losing of place in text, and ends up being a general distraction for the audience, instead of an aid to their enjoyment. I personally find it distressing to watch. I’m not going to post any videos in demonstration, but there are plenty out there.
I submit that what the audience wants is a connection with you, a sense of authenticity and engagement from you, they want to see you perform for them. Can that involve eye-contact? It can, of course. But is eye contact a must for audience connection? No – it’s not, I say. It can even diminish audience connection and enjoyment, as just described.
As an illustration, I’d like to point to this video of a reading by Canadian poet Jordan Scott (which was brought to my attention by Hannah Stephenson at The Storialist – thanks Hannah!). Scott, who stutters himself, explores ‘the poetics of stuttering’ in his collection Blert, from which he reads in this video.
Scott is clearly not someone who enjoys making eye contact with his audience – watch how he doesn’t do so in the first couple minutes of chit-chat. As an audience member, that strikes me as a pity, but ok, so maybe he’s a bit shy. What I’m really waiting to see how he performs during his reading. He begins reading about minute 1:50 and really gets into his stride about minute 3:30.
When he is reading his poems he is still not making eye contact with the audience, but it absolutely ceases to matter. He has gone inward and is focusing on the text, you can practically see his vibrant engagement with the text – his whole body, voice and energy are fully committed to voicing the text for the audience. It’s a wonderful performance that engages his whole being. As an audience member, I believe in it and want more. And all without any eye contact with the audience.
Now take a look at this video, which is a performance of Ravel’s Bolero conducted by Andre Rieu (and seems to have garnered some 5.5 million hits on You Tube). The camera does a great job of following each of the soloists and the musicians at large.
And what I’m thinking as a member of this audience, is that they remind me of Scott – they have gone inward, are focused on the score, on working their instrument, the music, the conductor. Not the audience. None of them even considers looking at the audience. The audience is implicit and deeply recognized on a level that transcends mere eye contact.
OK, so Scott was one performer and this is a whole orchestra and in many ways this is an apples-and-oranges scenario. But the point is that as a member of the audience, I don’t need, or want, to be looked at. I just need to be convinced of the performers’ authenticity, their passion, and to hear them play well.