In a recent post, Nic asked whether a poetry reader should make eye contact with the audience. One way to complicate this issue is to give audience members the text of the poems and let them read along as they listen. Then their eyes are on the text much of the time, rather than on the reader. I’m not sure whether this is a good or bad thing for shy readers — more on that in a minute — but I do think it’s a strategy worth considering if you really want to grab and hold people’s attention.
Sharing the text with the audience at a poetry reading is something that never would’ve occurred to me on my own. I rather enjoy the feeling of being slightly lost, like listening to a challenging piece of music for the first time, letting it wash over me and not necessarily focusing too hard on what it means and where it’s going. The sound of well-chosen words is often enough for me, and I read so much poetry on a daily basis that I’m able to develop a pretty good sense of a spoken poem even on first listen. But my number one priority in giving readings is to try to reach people who are not themselves poets, or even poet-geeks — that elusive general readership I think most of us fantasize about — and I’ve been told by a couple of good friends who fit that description that having the text in front of them greatly reduces the intimidation they otherwise tend to feel at readings.
As an environmentalist, however, I am loathe to print out a bunch of handouts that are only going to end up in the trash. I suppose one approach, if the reading is in support of a published collection, would be to have a whole bunch of copies on hand and loan them out at the beginning of the reading, but I’d be wary of putting that much emphasis on the product, and possibly making people feel like heels if they don’t shell out for it at the end of the reading. Another approach might be to spend a little money at Kinko’s (or wherever) and make handouts, optimally on recycled paper, of a high enough quality that people will want to keep them afterwards. Still another strategy could involve making a nonce website for the reading on a mobile phone-friendly platform such as Tumblr or Posterous, and encouraging audience members to log on at the beginning of the reading and follow along.
At the last public reading I gave, I projected the text of my poems onto a screen, using that dreaded software synonymous in the public mind with bullet points, ridiculous transition effects, and droning presenters. Yes, I used PowerPoint! But if you have a PC, it’s simply the most convenient tool, and this reading was all about tools: it was in support of a collection called Odes to Tools, consisting of poems I’d originally posted on my blog. Feedback from online readers had taught me that some of the hand tools I wrote about weren’t as commonly known as I’d assumed. So it actually made a great deal of practical sense to have a slide show and include pictures of the tools. For a few of the more obscure ones, I turned it into a quiz: show a picture of a tool, ask people to guess what it was, then proceed to the text of the poem about it. So there were lots of opportunities for audience interaction. Since one of the poems was about a musical saw, I was able to incorporate an audio recording as well, a minute-long snippet of a subway performer in New York City. PowerPoint handles audio inclusion really well.
As for eye contact, I ended up reading from the screen rather than the chapbook, though I had an annotated copy of the latter along with me just in case. I positioned myself at a right angle to the screen so I could glance back and forth from the screen to the audience, and they of course glanced back and forth between me and the screen, but the fact that we were reading from the same text made it into a kind of communal experience, faintly reminiscent of church, minus the piety. The house lights remained all the way up, because we were in the middle of a busy bookstore.
It was gratifying to see how easily passing customers could be snagged. Ordinarily, I think unwary bookstore customers tend to be annoyed to find themselves suddenly trespassing on poetry readings, but here they could stop, glance at the screen, and immediately get a sense of what was going on. So I guess I do recommend this approach for readings in any kind of busy public space, if you can pull it off. A good mike is probably a must, and you might need to bring your own screen in addition to all the other equipment.
I concluded the reading by showing some of my videopoems, which went over rather well, though it meant giving up the live-reading feel and letting people turn their full attention to the screen. But the videos were each just a couple minutes long, and of course I gave spoken introductions to each one. My videopoetry style is to include the poem in the audio track rather than as text, however, and I think the opposite approach would actually be a better fit for a live reading. It would be fun to try swapping slides for videos altogether and doing something like a hybrid between a poetry reading and a video installation. The only question is whether I have the technical skills and stage presence to pull it off.
So is this a way for shy performers to escape the dilemma of whether to force themselves to make eye contact and risk utter befuddlement? Not being very shy myself, I’m not sure I can give a definitive answer, but I think the public perception of PowerPoint is pretty well founded. A hell of a lot of mediocre public speakers apparently believe that giving people things to look at while you drone at them helps keep their attention, but in reality, I think it just makes them feel trapped. And in poetry, more than in any other form of verbal expression, the goal is to open new windows, right? So having visual aids can be great, but it doesn’t leave you off the hook. You still have to read as if your life depended on it.