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.)

 

If Not Talking Back to the Muse, At Least Listening to Her a Little More

I’ve  been reading a lot lately, and realizing how much in the last year since Chris and I have lived together that that hasn’t been the case.  When I was single, I read about hour before bed every night–it could be poetry, it could be history or some other non-fiction, it could be memoir, or a murder mystery.  Sometimes I’d read all day on a Saturday, and even if I hadn’t gotten the laundry done, I’d feel like I had accomplished something valuable.  But especially before bed, it was good to do because it has a sedative effect–and the lack of reading plus the incessant snoring (I’m sorry, honey, but you snore really bad) this past year has really frazzled me.  I’m stressed out a lot.

So I’ve been making a concerted effort to read.  And this is also helpful, because in my last post, I mentioned I was starting to stagnate and needed some fresh inspiration.  I’ve read some articles on Shreveport history, including the State Fair and Holiday-in-Dixie, and I also read Goodloe Stuck’s really fantastic (but unfortunately, not academically documented) biography of Annie McCune, who was an Irish immigrant who followed the Confederate soldiers from New Orleans up north to Shreveport, settled, and opened her own bordello.  He writes with humor, and a lot of the research is anonymous quotations from the men who used to go down to the Red Light District and see her or her girls, and some of it’s really funny.

McCune was a real entrepreneur as far as building business; she sold beer for instance, and was in good with the cops so never got harrassed, and she was quite the philanthropist, giving all kinds of monies to charities.  Her house on 900 Fannin Street was one of the three most elegant/ top tier places in the District, and she regularly got her girls checked for “venereal disease.”  Their health was McCune’s priority; men knew they could go there without worry of carrying something home to their wives.

Apparently Shreveport’s District was the largest in the country for a city its size–it was several blocks, and contained all manner of vice, from shotgun shack quickie whorehouses, to saloons, to places to get cocaine and other drugs, to the more palatial bordellos.  It was huge tourist attraction, with people coming in from all over the Ark-La-Tex–kind of, I suppose, the way the riverboats are now, which I wholeheartedly disapprove of.  (Of course, what does it say about me that I feel affection for a Red Light District where women are selling themselves for $3/ trick?  That seems very counter my women’s studies background…)

Shreveport Madam came out in 1981, and it was kind of fun to read the acknowledgments, especially because I knew several of the people in the LSUS Archives Stuck thanked for help.  As I said, I enjoyed it–it was really engaging and interesting, and I could tell that Stuck had a real affinity for McCune.  I just wish that it had demonstrated academic rigor, beyond a few mentions, in passing, of newspaper articles–although it did have some maps and photographs.  Of course, one of Stuck’s points was that there really isn’t much known about her, so he had to rely on eye-witness accounts.  But when there’s no name attached to a quote, it kind of mitigates the authority and veracity of the account.  At least, it does for me.

I actually think we have a copy of Shreveport Madam at our house back home; I want to say that I’ve seen it in my sister’s bedroom, although I can’t imagine how it got there.  I’m sure she’s never read it, and I wouldn’t have either, except that the Archives had multiple copies and sent it (and other books, like Chronicles of Shreveport [which had a print run in the 1890’s of 500, and mine is #470ish], Glimpses of Shreveport, Caddo 1000, and Caddo Was…) to assist me in my Sibley Sisters poems.  Anyway, I’m not sure how I will work Annie McCune or the Shreveport’s Red Light District into the poems, but it’s definitely good background.

And speaking (round-aboutly) of inspiration, tonight is PoetryAtlanta’s program, Talking Back to the Muse, in which poets are invited to read a favorite poem, and then read a response/ answer/ reflection/ something else poem we’ve written so the two, in proximity, can “dialogue.”  There will be a ton of poets there tonight–Karen, Bob, Collin Kelley, Christine Swint, Rupert Fike, Robin Kemp, Megan Volpert, Dan Veech,  Cleo Creech, Kodac Harrison, Ginger Murchison, many others.  And me, of course.  I’ll be reading a poem that was sparked by Jane Kenyon, who has always been one of my favorite poets.

I like to read Jane Kenyon because she is reflective and sees beauty in the smallest things; even though I have no point of reference for the farm life of New England, something about that way of life, as she presents it, comforts me and resonates with me…  I’ve also been reading good ol’ Anne Sexton, whose poems are the antithesis of Jane Kenyon–they burn me, skin me alive.  But I don’t read a lot of her work at one time–she wears me out.

Anyway… if you need something to do tonight at 8 p.m., come out to the Composition Gallery and enjoy poetry, wine, and good company:  1388 McClendon Avenue, Atlanta, 30307, not far from L5P.   Call them for details:  678 982-9764.

April is Poetry Month… & I Haven’t Made a Single Post (Horrors!)

Tuesday the 6th was Chris’s b-day, and instead of traditional birthday things, I dragged him to the DYPS’ reading at the Oglethorpe Museum (he was very amenable, all things considered).  The reading was in tandem with their exhibit, Henri Matisse: a Celebration of French Poets and Poetry. (As opposed to French poets and what, hotdogs???  Like, duh, of course poetry).

I really enjoyed myself, even if the poems that Blake, Bob, and Karen read were mostly ekphrastic–and both Bob and Blake brought handouts to accompany their poems too, which was thoughtful.  I knew that we, as a group, had discussed the appropriateness of this venue for ekphrastic poetry, and as you know, I’m not a) a huge fan of it, and b) worth a damn when it comes to writing it.  So I had initially tried to get out of the reading, figuring that the few ekphrastic poems I’ve written (and they’re only pseudo-ek, because I think the convention of just describing what’s in the painting is kind of… well… dry) really ought not to be read–or hell, acknowledged–but my demurring went over like the proverbial lead balloon.

So, making my apologies to the audience (which was, surprisingly, not just the DYPS and their significant others), I read poems from La Petite Mort, and from my as-yet-unnamed collection about the Sibley Sisters.  Here’s the set list:

  • Dystopic Love Poem
  • Besame Mucho
  • It Took You Half an Hour to Remember the Words “Wine Cooler”
  • Low Sunday
  • Valediction
  • Ex Somnium
  • Bee
  • They Say
  • Supplication
  • Tallulah Brings Home News

Afterwards, there was an impromptu star party, as the director(?) of the Oglethorpe Museum invited us up on the roof to look at Venus and Mercury.  Sirius was out, as was Orion, and I think I saw the Big Dipper.  It was neat to be up there, although it went on a little longer than I would have liked, and Karen reminded me of the time we were at the observatory at the Sewanee Writers Conference (in 2002), and we saw the shooting star.  (How can that be 8 years ago???)

Anyway… April is a busy month, poetry-wise, for me.  There is PoetryAtlanta’s Talking Back to the Muse program on the 17th, a poetry workshop on the 24th, a reading on the 28th, and possibly another reading sometime at the end of the month.  Well, I hope I can finagle some book orders out of all of this!

Oh, and buy my book already! 😉

Under a Rock

In case you wonder where I’ve been, I’ve been under the oppressive boulder of registration, which has pretty much consumed my attention for the last two weeks.  You know how bad it’s been?  I completely forgot to go to my writing group this week.  I didn’t even think about it until yesterday.   Dreadful.

Thursday night I was down in Columbus at the First Thursday Reading Series; I was the featured reader.  It was really pretty neat because there was an open-mic reading before me, and eight readers signed up, and each person read a couple of poems, so I got to hear poems by my Georgia Poetry Society friends Keith Badowski, Ron Self (who had also prepared an absolutely lovely dinner in my honor), Elsie Austen (who contributed the world’s best dinner rolls to that dinner), and Jo Middlebrooks, among others.

Afterwards, I read for about 20-25 minutes, and tried, valiantly (but not successfully), to make that little small-talk-between-poems that is so essential but so ghastly hard.  It might have been less difficult if I had chosen which poems I was going to read beforehand, but I just hadn’t gotten around to it–inexcusable, really, and I’m sorry about that.  (I hope my audience didn’t think too badly of me for it).  So that made me a little bit flustered.

But I did read a wide variety of poems (including several from La Petite Mort).  Here’s the set list, in no particular order:

  • On Mathematics Hall
  • Excavation
  • Night Orchard
  • Moth Walk
  • Dystopic Love Poem
  • Providence
  • You Never Listen
  • It Took You Half an Hour to Remember the Words “Wine Cooler”
  • Solstice
  • Imputation
  • Ex Somnium
  • Melon Stand, South of Many
  • Bayous and Barstools
  • Decidedly Unbridled Foolish Pleasure
  • Old Kook
  • Besame Mucho

Speaking of La Petite Mort, I really need to get with the program on that.  As in, photos, blurbs, and addresses.  *Sigh*

Rejected, But Not Dejected (Fortunately)

I got a very nice rejection for my chapbook Bayous and Barstools today.  Funny, I was just looking in my box of  3×5 cards (a very primitive submission tracking system, I admit), and wondering “I wonder when I’ll hear from Kulupi Press?”  

Of all the contests I’ve sent that chapbook, I really felt I would have a good chance with Kulupi–they wanted poems about place, and that chapbook is full of my Southern poems which just reek of spirit of place.  It’s unfortunate for me that they chose another winner and finalists, but Arthur Dawson, the publisher did hand-write:

Especially enjoyed “Nouveau Décor,” “Melon Stand [South of Many],” and title poem.  Great portraits of people!

I always feel the sting a little less when the editor (or in this case, publisher) bothers to write a little something positive, as I’m sure we all do.  At least it lets you feel like someone actually did read it–it didn’t just get a quick glance and get dumped on the reject pile.

Well, it’s still out at several other places, so hopefully I might hear good news in the near future.

In other news, I’m reading at the Decatur Book Festival, Java Monkey Stage, at 2:30 on Sunday.  I am in good company:  Christine Swint reads at 2, Bob Wood at 2:15, Blake Leland at 2:45, Julie Bloemeke at 3, Karen Head at 3:45, and Collin Kelley at 4.  Of course there are many, many more wonderful readers who will be there at the Java Monkey stage (as well as a all the other stages!) which goes non-stop both Saturday and Sunday, so if you have a few hours to kill, and want to hear some great readers, you should come on out.

I know I am especially looking forward to meeting Christine and Julie, both of whom participated in Karen’s Plinth poem with me, and neither of whom I’ve met before.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering about the APPF… let’s just say, I know it’s September, and leave it at that. 😛