When I was at the Miami Book Fair back in November of 2010, I saw Susan Rich do something that I’ve never seen at a poetry reading. I had heard tell of interesting give-aways at her readings, so I was hoping for lavender scented chocolates, but I’ve since decided that what she actually did was far more valuable. She gave us the two poem warning.
Shortly before the end of her reading, she told us that we were two poems away from the end. Later I thought it remarkable that fewer poets do that. I would argue that more of us should.
A two (or 3 or 4) poem warning focuses the mind. The warning acts as a shepherd, herding us all back to attention. It’s so easy for our attention to wander, especially as we get deep into the reading. The two poem warning calls us back.
Lately, I’ve wondered if we should go even further with our poetry readings, in terms of providing signposts for the audience. I’ve wondered if we shouldn’t arrive with a program or a bulletin, much as we would get at a concert or recital–or performances of many kinds of art.
My mother is a classically trained musician, so I’ve had the chance to go to many concerts. I’ve always found the program invaluable. It lets me know where we are and where we’re going. It gives me background information. I can stash it away as a souvenir, to provide happy memories later. Why don’t poets provide programs?
There are some drawbacks, of course. Even as I write this, I hear the howls of protest from my environmentalist friends. We can take some steps to mitigate the impact (like using recycled paper, planting seedlings), but handing out paper programs does mean that some trees will die.
Then there’s the issue of spontaneity. Handing out a program means that we have lost some chance to deviate from the plan. I know that some poets have several different readings in their heads, so that they can choose poems and go in directions as they sense audience response.
Of course, audiences might be willing to forgive a bit of spontaneity, especially if properly introduced: “This poem reminds me of a poem I wrote earlier, and I just can’t resist giving you this extra poem.” If we deviate too much, it defeats the purpose of having a program, of course, but like the two poem warning, like the program, a deviation calls the audience back to attention.
The most important reason to have a program is the potential to gain new audience members, and this reason trumps the environmental concerns or the desire for spontaneity. Often, we assume that we’ll be reading only for poetry fans, but unfortunately, that assumption means we’ll forget about all the others in the room who aren’t already fans, who can use some guidance.
Who might these people be? The students who come for extra credit, the spouses (or significant others) and children of the poetry fan who drug them all there, the curious friends of the poetry fan, the people who just happened to be in the neighborhood.
Many people, even the ones who come to poetry readings, feel that poetry is a tough art form to appreciate; a program or bulletin would help them find their way. A program gives us a place to put background information, if that’s important–then we don’t have to bog down our readings with lengthy explanations. If we’re reading from an assortment of our books, the program can serve as a playlist; then later, perhaps an audience member will say, “I really loved that poem about modern big, bad wolves. I’d love to buy the book that poem came from”–and there’s the program, serving as handy reference. A program gives us a chance to advertise our upcoming readings and publications. We might even promote other people.
A program gives people a souvenir, something to remember us by. A program might serve as a prompt, helping people to remember to support the world of poetry, whether by attending more readings, buying more books, or simply by reminding people of what a wonderful reading they enjoyed–thus encouraging them to go to more readings.
A program offers all sorts of potential. We shouldn’t overlook the possibilities.