Some Thoughts on Poetry Readings: Part Two (Various - and Occasionally Notorious - Characters Defined)

(I offer the following lexicon in good fun. Your additions are most welcome.)

bartender (bar’-ten-der), n., the only person allowed to make noise while poets are reading at a venue that holds a liquor licence.
ill-prepared reader (ill’-pre-pared’ rea’-der), n., a poet who holds his book of poems at arm’s length, and who frowns at it (often through glasses set low on his nose) as if he hasn’t seen the book in some time, a book through which he flips aimlessly while he tells the audience about the poem he would like to read to them but can’t seem to locate.
MC (M'-C'), n., a person who reads publishers’ blurbs to the audience and who sometimes mispronounces the harder names.
mumbler (mum-’bler), n., a poet who mistakes the lectern for the audience.
over-prepared reader (ov’er-pre-pared’ rea’-der), n., a poet who thumbs through her clearly well-thumbed through book (fringed with an impenetrable system of multicoloured Post-Its) but can’t seem to find the poem she made sure to label with a Post-It the night before, possibly because of all the Post-Its.
perfectionist (per-fec’-tion-ist), n., a poet who flubs the reading of a poem and, bothered by this, insists on backing up and starting over even though no one in the audience noticed the mistake or really cares.
respectful reader (re-spect’-ful rea’-der), n., a poet who leaves her book at home and reads from 81/2 x 11 sheets of paper printed out and ordered the night before.
seasoned pro (sea’-soned pro’), n., a poet who clasps both hands at midsection and recites from memory in a crisp voice, charming everyone.
social outcast (so’-cial out’-cast), n., the publisher's rep., who mans the book table on which undisturbed books are stacked next to the portable credit card swiper/guillotine-thing.
sound poet (sound po’-et), n., a poet who believes in rehearsing but, when reading, must be politely waited out unless of course you like the sounds, in which case: a poet who is riveting.
sweater (sweat’-er), n., yours truly.
visual poet (vis'-u-al po'et), n., a poet who comes equipped with slides or, better, PowerPoint.
voyeur (vo’-yeur), n., a person who likes to look at, but doesn’t dare touch for fear he or she may become obligated to buy, the stacked books on the book table.
waitress (wai’-tress), n., the single most important person at a poetry reading, especially when the venue holds a liquor licence.
young person (young per’-son), n., a person who cuts the book table a wide swath and carries a ms in a satchel just in case there’s a publisher or an open mic around.

Originally Published: March 21st, 2009

Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

  1. March 22, 2009

    intimate audience = only the MC, poet, and immediate next-of-kin attended the reading

  2. March 22, 2009

    Your definition for "sound poet" seems a bit too broad. I've politely sat through any number of well rehearsed poets who were not "sound poets" because I didn't like their sounds.

  3. March 22, 2009
     thomas brady

    The espresso machine. It's really important that someone gets steamed milk during a performance. God, I just can't live without steamed milk! I want some now!

  4. March 22, 2009
     Colin Ward

    auctioneer (auc'-tion-eer), n., poet who tries to get in as many indistinguishable words as possible under the open mic time limit.
    banger (bang'-er), n., poet who pounds on rhymes and stresses like a punch-drunk whorehouse pianist to remind us that we are listening to doggerel.
    cryptocrap (cryp'-to-crap), n., "deep" gibberish.
    Dramatic Enigmatic Non Sequitur Ending (dra-ma'-tic en'-ig-mat-ic non' seq'-uit-or end'-ing), phr., having become almost as bored by a "dense" poem as the audience is, the poet ends it with a non sequitur.*
    explicators (ex'-plic-at-ors), n., pl, poets who take what seems like hours to explain exactly how drunk they were during the five minutes it took them to write their poem.
    feedbacker (feed'-back-er), n., attention junkie who, among other annoying traits, looks up at the audience to see if they "get" each "pearl" being cast in front of them.
    gesticulator (ges-tic'-u-lat-or), n., poet whose frenetic, semaphoric hand feints argue for handcuffs.
    humorists (hum'-or-ists), n., pl, a tiny subset of funny poets who are intentionally so.
    linebreaker (line'-break-er), n., poet who stops unnaturally at the end of each line so that no one misses the cleverness of the break or forgets that this tedious prose is being presented as poetry.
    malaprop (mal'-a-prop), n., poet who uses redundant props such as an orange to illustrate what an orange looks like (in case the audience contains any Alpha Centuran tourists).
    monotoner (mon'-o-ton-er), n., category of poets whose tone, pitch, tenor and volume remain fixed throughout; subcategories include the mesmerist (each poem as soporific as it is sophomoric), the reporter, the whisperer and the screamer (not nearly as exciting or sexy as it sounds).
    non-diarist (non'-di'-ar-ist), n., (archaic), poets who didn't believe that the world was fascinated by the tropeless minutia of their lives.
    rant (rant'), n., hysteria delivered with the fervent belief that what has failed as rhetoric must therefore succeed as poetry.
    readers (read'-ers), n., pl, 1. poets who expect listeners and posterity to remember their poems even though they, themselves, cannot. 2. (archaic), non-poets who actually read poetry.
    Best regards,
    * "Triteness is a minor flaw, easily remedied (should nothing else occur to you) by adding a mysterious reference to a goat in the last line." - (Gerard Ian Lewis, 2005)

  5. March 22, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Harsh and unforgiving as always, eh, 'Pirvaya'?

  6. March 22, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    “To read your own poetry in public is a kind of mental incest.”
    Brendan Behan's father quoted by Shay Duffrin in his one-man show "Confessions of an Irish Rebel" 1984

  7. March 23, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Oscar, that's perfect, thanks!
    Chris, good point (though perhaps the broadness of my def. emphasizes the slight redundancy of an adjective like "sound" in the label "sound poet" (though I do recognize that the label exists to mark a certain group w/ specific foci) -- ah, who am I kidding, I'm just defending an imprecise def. Thanks for your comment).
    Thomas, thanks. Readings in Toronto are often in pubs, so pints of beer tend to replace the espresso machine if there is one (and there may be one!).
    Colin, these are fantastic! I especially admire "linebreaker" and "explicators." I originally had something similar to "explicators":
    Elvis Presley in Vegas (El’vis Pres’ley in Ve’gas), n., a poet who introduces each poem he reads with a funny or illuminating anecdote about the poem’s gestation; the anecdote is sometimes laboured or seems half-improvised on the spot.
    I cut this, though, because if one is not familiar w/ late-Elvis' onstage meandering the reference might not resonate. I also had:
    Bob Dylan in Concert (Bob Dyl’an in Con’cert), n., a poet who offers no introductions or anecdotes and who appends a curt 'thangyew’ to the end of each poem he reads.
    I'm not sure if Dylan still performs his songs this way live, so the def. may not be useful.
    Gary, thanks again for another funny quote.

  8. March 23, 2009

    i am very proud to be a mumbler!

  9. March 23, 2009
     Alice Shapiro

    I'm having my first ever poetry reading in June (all non-family members are invited!). This list helped me define myself (sweater) and aspire to become a "respectful reader." I naturally gravitated toward 8-1/2 x 11 ordered poems but was fearful that it would not look professional. Anecdotes and humor are definitely out since I don't think reading a joke is a good idea. Even months before the dreaded event I am considering a virtual blog tour. Wish me luck!

  10. March 23, 2009
     Desmond Swords

    poetry slags - people who get on the mic early and leave immediately after reading their own stuff
    boring gits - people with high falutin abstarct intros which explain the metaphysical impulse and properties of very pedestrian pieces, and which last ten times longer than the poem itself.
    Shitters - two people who strip naked whilst screeching, one of whom (at the mic) then defecates and smears their own excrement over themselves to a horrified audience - as happened the other week at FLUcast open mic in London and which this video shows (warning - not for the feint hearted).

  11. March 23, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Don't you people have health laws over there?
    Or even public decency?
    Oh, yeah...I forgot.
    Erin go Bragh.

  12. March 24, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Thanks for your comment, Sara. There have been great mumbled performances throughout time, including Orson Welles' in Touch of Evil. Mumbling works if the audience can somehow be made to feel that what's being mumbled is important, forcing the audience to lean in. Mysterious pauses help, too.
    Alice, thanks and good luck. Also, I wouldn't say that humour is out. Read funny poems, if you have 'em. It's reassuring to hear the audience laugh. And if you truly are a sweater, bring a bottle of water and some kind of handkerchief. 8x11 sheets don't look unprofessional, at least to my eyes. That said, I usually stick w/ my book, but that's because I'm lazy and my book is slim.
    Desmond, thanks for your entries. I haven't clicked on the link yet; for some reason I'm reluctant.

  13. March 24, 2009
     Desmond Swords

    A ha, Fitzgerald, a South Munster name - Deasmhuman (desmond) Deas - South - Mhuman - Munster (my surname is also Desmond, Swords is my mother's maiden name)
    I think the Shitter instillation piece, this was a once in a blue moon event. Though these two have been trying their hand at various other venues and now the words around, it will be much harder for them.
    This kind of guerrilla art I have not heard of before. The closest I got to it was watching an Annie Sprinkle vid in the third year of college for Performance Theory.
    The challenge here is to contextualise it as legitimate art, which I think they have a fair crack at doing, considering what the Futurists and Dada lot got up to, and when we throw in Annie Sprinkle and Marco B, Rin Athy and such, these two could be having a full shelf on the library of academia if they play their cars right. But they might just be two loonies - it can be extremely difficult to differentiate between artists and the mentally ill, so wait and see.
    I too was hesitant Jason, but oddly enough, on watching it was strangley compelling and I was wondering if it might have been a con and the guy doing the principle act of shitting into his hand and wiping it on his face, may have had a chocolate bar strategically placed down his Calvin Kleins, but it becomes clear, if you watch, that no, this is not the case, it is a genuine piece of Art, if we thus decide and agree on it being such.
    It could be worse, around ten years ago when I was living in London, execution videos had just come onto the market. I don't know if the law has changed, but at that time, it was perfectly legal to sell videos of people being executed, in the arab world and such. I didn't get it out, but happened to be sitting in the same room of a large house with numerous people living there, and the owner, a young chap, stuck it in and what followed was public execution after public execution.
    I watched for about two minutes and thought, WTF am i watching this for, and left, but still, a jolt - though this vid is nothing as severe as a public execution, it is something which will polarise opinion as to its legitimacy as art - much like Flarf can be argued over I suppose.
    gra agus siochain
    love and peace