Thinking About the Reading at Poetry Readings

This morning a colleague made some gratifying remarks about me and about my poetry, and while she is the kind of person who is elegant and generous in her praise with everyone (which, in some ways, lessens some of my pleasure in the compliments), one thing that she did say that I think was not especially florid or fullsome was that I am a good reader of my own poetry.  That is something I value.

We all have gone to to poetry readings wherein otherwise excellent poetry is ruined by the person reading it.  Either they read in a monotone voice, devoid of inflection or life (which in turns sucks the life out of everyone in the audience), or they end every sentence in that pretentious “poetry voice” where the tone seems to ask a question even when it’s completely inappropriate to the text.  It staggers me when poets read their work poorly.  It makes me think that a) they never read their work aloud to themselves, even just to hear how the words sound together; or b) (and worse) they cultivate that affected “poetry voice” because they have seen it modeled at so many other poetry readings that they think that’s how poetry out loud is supposed to sound.

Let me assure you, it’s not supposed to sound that way.  It’s utterly gag-worthy that some poets choose to read their poetry to a live audience with anything less than an animated, interesting delivery.  Hello, poetry is PERFORMANCE–even “academic” “on the page” poetry.  Somehow our spoken word poets have gotten that message–that poetry is performance.  They know that poetry is a dynamic medium–so they damn well better deliver it in a dynamic way.

What’s the excuse for “on the page” poets?  Why do they read in a manner that so often turns off their audience?  When they give a dull reading, or read so poorly as to make the audience wish they had cotton to stuff their ears with, they are actually ensuring that the casual poetry audience member will never return and will worse, actually despise poetry.

This is my suggestion for poets to help improve delivery:

  • Practice in front of a mirror.  This can help you remember to look at your audience once in a while.  Look up from those white pages!  Reading in front of a mirror can also help you notice any obnoxious mannerisms you may have, like holding the pages as if your life depends on it, or twisting a lock of your hair, or if you look randomly to the sky.  (I had a philosophy professor who did this–I always wondered what on the ceiling could possibly interest him.)
  • Record your voice…Listen to how you read.  If you catch yourself using that phony, pretentious poetry voice, nip that shit in the bud.  If you find yourself reading without expression, underline words on the page that you want to emphasize, and then emphasize them.  Or, print out copies of your poems with different font sizes on specific words–make the font smaller if you want to decrease the volume of your voice; make the font larger if you want to speak a word louder.  
  • Videotape your performances.  I personally am not hugely keen on being taped.  But it’s beneficial.  Or so they tell me.  With everyone having video-capable phones these days, it’s easy and cheap to do this, and you will gain a fuller experience and understanding of your presence on stage.
  • Learn a few of your poems by heart.  Say them to the air.  Say them to your cat.  If you learn a couple by heart, that can give you a couple of minutes where you don’t need to rely on your pages at all, where you can fully engage the eyes of your audience… even your imaginary one.  One thing that can help you learn your poem is to record it and say it along with the recording.  (I mean, this is how we learn songs, right?  The principle is the same.)
  • Attend many poetry readings.  Notice what engages you as an audience member and then try to recreate it at the readings you give.  What makes a dynamic reader keep your attention?  See what they do right, and model that behavior in your own readings.  
  • Write poetry.  Alot.  And then only read the best material to an audience.  You would think this was an obvious suggestion, but it’s amazing how often poets will combine banal poetry with horrible delivery.  Then it’s a total suckfest.

I think I’m going to try to make a few poetry podcasts and put them here on my blog.  (Of course, I have to learn how to do that first–hahahah.)