Don't be boring, please.
Sorry folks, I've been out of commission for a few days...at a poetry workshop thingie on Block Island with spotty phone and net access. But I did the "island thing" with gleeful abandon, including the requisite chilly early morning walk along the deserted shoreline accompanied by a manic Golden Retriever, And yes, I began a poem about the 'twilight of my life." How could I not?
For reasons I won't go into here, I also started thinking a lot about folks standing up to read their poems to groups of other folks. I wonder why it's so difficult sometimes. Can a poet reading an interminable boooorring singsongy ode to himself actually hear that interminable booooring singsongy ode to himself and recognize it for what it is? Can mass yawning among his listeners be interpreted as a clue? Can another poet, whimpering into her hands while the second row strains to hear, finally learn to lift her head and speak as if she actually believes in what she is saying?
I'm here to help.
What qualifies me to wax poetic on the art of waxing poetic? Well, I've been bellowing into microphones for more than 20 years now--and, as far as I know, no one has asked for their money back. Occasionally I am even given money.
So here's what I think.
--If you find yourself blathering, making excuses or over-introducing your poem, that is a sign that you don’t have much faith in the piece your about to read. This is fine if you want to admit that the poem is not finished and you want to consider the open mic as an opportunity to solicit feedback. It is NOT fine if you are presenting the poem as a finished, polished representation of you. If you have doubts about a poem, those doubts will ALWAYS affect your reading.
---Never pick a poem that is thick with metaphor and tangled meanings, or overly prosy. Remember: The audience will only hear the poem once. If it is cluttered with things that have to be deciphered, they’ll stop listening. They’ll resent having to work that hard.
---A poem is simply three or four minutes out of your life. If you’re not willing to speak clearly, acknowledge your audience and present that poem in the best possible light, ask yourself why you’re reading in public at all. Of course, we’re all seeking acceptance. But you’re not asking an audience to accept YOU—you’re asking them to listen and accept a series of meaningful lines you have written. Your time on stage will be over before you know it. And no one wants you to fail.
---Most readings are held in bars—but don’t drink heavily before getting up on stage. You’ll think you’re being brilliant and edgy. In reality, you will be slurring and listing a little to the left. The creative guzzler is no longer in vogue.
---Don’t rush through your poem. Remember that there is drama. There are breaths and nuances and pauses. There is tension and release, hills and valleys, just as there is in everyday speech. No one says you have to deliver a poem like machine-gun fire, then rush to your seat like you’ve done something bad.
---If you’re bad at memorization, don’t memorize the entire poem. Just memorize key snippets, so you’re able to look at your audience for extended periods of time. And while you’re looking at them, don’t think about getting back to the comfort of the page. Really LOOK at your audience. Look at them listening to you, and let their attention fuel your reading.
---If you have a piece of paper in front of your face, PUT IT DOWN. If you are shifting from foot to foot, STAND STILL. If you are waving your hands, pointing or otherwise punctuating your reading in an attempt to “perform,” harness that energy. Use your head and eyes and voice. Make the audience look at YOU, not at your choreography.
---Don’t be afraid of drama. Don’t shy away from dialogue, persona, and other unexpected entry points into your poem. Make the audience wake up. Convince them that you’re not like everyone else.
---When you are at a poetry reading, please pay attention to the other readers. You are in a room full of like minds, and you just might learn something.
---If you have chosen to share a piece that is intensely personal—one that may affect you emotionally—be prepared to surrender to that emotion. Never apologize for choking up or shedding tears. Almost everyone at a poetry reading is there to wring some hurt or anger out of their souls. They’ve been there.
---If you are intrigued by the idea of poetry in competition, watch it carefully before diving in. Even the kiddy pool is full of sharks.
---It’s actually easier to read in a room where you know absolutely no one. That way, your friends don’t feel obligated to comment on your work, and you don’t feel antsy waiting for that comment. However, if you are surrounded by friends, use them as a support system.
---Don’t be in a rush to read in public. Spend some time with your own work. Hone it and craft it and be your own first audience. Buy a few books and try out some innovative writing exercises. Challenge yourself. Be your own fan club, and once you decide to take the stage, your confidence will show.
And if you need a place to be alone with your art, I recommend Block Island in the off-season. Rent the dog if you have to.
Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017), winner of an NAACP Image Award; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American...