Long ago, I went to a reading by the poet Yusef Komunyakaa at Florida International University. He had all his books with him. On the way home, I expressed my disappointment, because the bulk of his reading had come from a book that wasn’t my favorite.
My spouse, who approaches poetry readings as an appreciative observer not a fervent acolyte, said, “Of course he did. He got more applause each time he read from that book, and eventually switched to reading poems only from that book.”
I marveled at Komunyakaa’s ability to make that switch, but later, I realized that he probably has the experience that makes it possible. Some days, the process reminds me of those “choose your own adventure” books that my sister and I loved long ago (if Joe opens the door, turn to page 23; if Joe goes back to the space capsule, turn to page 31): if audience claps politely, switch to this book; if audience applauds wildly, go to next poem from that volume.
This process likely gets more and more complicated as poets have more books to promote. It’s easy to create a set list if you only have one book that you’re hoping to help your audience love (see this post for my thoughts on the set list). It’s harder to know what to do if you’ve got several books.
Here again, we can turn to musicians for help. Several weeks ago, on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, I heard a great interview with Ben Harper (go here to listen, here to read). He talks about performing, and much of what he says could be applicable to those of us who read our poems too. He says a set, which for him is 2 or 2 1/2 hours, ”represents 20 to 25 songs. So, if you have a 25-song set, half of those have to be what got you there. So, material from the past – that’s 12 songs; five songs have to be just me and a guitar, ’cause there’s plenty of people who only want to hear that too – so, that’s 17 songs. So, that leaves me with exactly eight songs that can be covers and more up-to-date material.”
I realize that most of us don’t have the kind of popularity that ensures our audience will sit enraptured for 2 hours or more. But his guidelines still seem applicable with a ratio that could work for most of us: half the poems should be from your past, only a few can be experimental, which leaves you with a little over a third of your time left for new work.
So, with this ratio in mind, if you’ve got a new book out in addition to an older book or two, roughly one third of your reading should be from the new book. But like musicians, it’s not wise to abandon our old work completely. After all, the older poems are likely the work that brought audiences to our current readings. And this set list still gives us a chance to see how audiences react to works in progress, so that we can revise before we publish.
I have more than an academic interest in this subject. I have two chapbooks. Whistling Past the Graveyard has been out since 2004. My new chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents, will be published in July. I have a reading on August 4 at the Books and Books location in the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale (it starts at 6:30—if you’re in the area, I’d love to see you there). So, let’s see how this ratio would work in a real life setting.
I’ll share the stage with 2 other poets, which means I’ll have 15 minutes, which for me is about 8 poems. Here’s what I’m planning. I’ll read the most popular of my poems, “Heaven on Earth,” first; it appears in my first chapbook. I’ll read one more poem from my first chapbook, and then a poem that appears in both. Then I’ll read 3 poems from my new chapbook, and I’ll close with one poem from each.
Those of you with math acumen will note that I haven’t stuck to the ratio I recommended. I’d rather read published work than poems that I’m still revising, so my ratio turns out to be more 50-50, in terms of a balance of old and new.
Hopefully, I’ll choose the poems that leave the audience inspired–happy to be reminded that of what they liked in the first chapbook, and excited to explore the new chapbook.
Next week: what can poets learn from cover bands?