Ways Of Looking At A Poetry Reading

Part of drafting a poem is reading it aloud. Until its been read, it remains unfinished.

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Midway through reading a poem I liked, I realized it was too long. I felt different about it as it was coming out of my mouth. Wrong room perhaps? Different kind of listeners? This morning I took that poem, promptly deleted nine lines out of it, and re-printed it.

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Its possible the poems you have the least faith in are your better poems. The shortest poem I read may have been the highlight of my set. Afterwards, especially after being asked to read it again in the parking lot, I thought maybe I should begin submitting it.

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For days, I thought of the set of poems I wanted to share. Everything changed once I stepped into the room. Each space has its own feeling, mood, temperature. My aggressive poems on gun violence, race, or sex that I would have liked to’ve read, now felt too hot for a room that was quiet, older and in a library where at least one child was milling around, slightly bored.

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I used That F word in a poem about flowers. I have no issues with using vulgarities in poetry. One child in the room—I’ll say it and move on, without drawing any attention to it. More than one child and I might swallow the word respectfully, just so the audience knows where I was going. Years ago I spoke in a classroom at a high school and asked the teacher about language. Fully knowing I did all my best cursing by the Fifth grade. The teacher shrugged, and said: Let’s be real… I used it. It underscored frustration, not sex. Same with the single F word I used last night.

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I’m implying vulgarity can be poetic. I usually use it as part of the poem’s voice– its not the poems focus, but its important in underscoring what I want the poem to do emotionally.

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A month ago, I heard a poet ask permission / acknowledge a young older pre-teen in the room before reading a poem specifically about sex. The poem turned out not to be that graphic, but the woman still walked her son out to the sidewalk for a moment. Its as if her son should rather learn about sex in the gutter on the street like the rest of us back in the good old days. Nothing like Vintage Ignorance

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My Lyft driver home was an editor, journalist who interviewed me about my evening. He asked if I get stage fright before readings. I told him No, and how I once did stand-up comedy at an assembly when I was in high school. Surviving that, I could stand in front of a room and do anything.

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I forget Public Speaking is a major phobia. Mine is heights, falling.

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I went to an open mic for musicians. It was interesting the players who were shy, delicate compared with those who sang and played to be heard well into the next building. Confidence stands head and shoulders over talent every night. At the music event, the nights highlight for me was the host, who ended the show with the worst freestyle rap in history. But his commitment to getting through the song, his comfort with the room and himself, his confessing to us he was a writer not a freestyle rapper, made his effort funny and engaging and awful, and I loved him immediately. Later, I didn’t think much about the better musicians that night.

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The event took place in the conference room of a library. The audience doesn’t applaud between poems. Sometimes spontaneous applause leaks out. Audiences that snap their fingers are, to me, awful. Snapping is like tipping with fake money. Silence between poems would be better, even as I sometimes feel the audience rise with a desire to respond somehow.

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Not every poet is an ideal reader or representative of their own work.
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Last night a bar was mentioned that does poetry on the weekends. I knew it well. I said: “Emily Dickinson would not do well in that room. Dylan Thomas, yes. Emily, no.”

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I’ve been regularly recording myself in order to listen to what I’m doing. At the podium, I feel what’s happening in the room but its hard hearing myself objectively. I don’t clearly know what’s coming across nor do I rarely understand how I’m heard or what the experience is like to listen to me. And no, I’m not always in the mood to listen to myself.

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It takes courage to chop chunks out of poems, take whole stanzas that are of themselves good, but are distractingly extra weight. How much can you excise without losing the point? Can you see beyond what you stubbornly like? As short as my shortest poem was, I deleted two lines I really liked before reading it. The lines were: “in dusks blue drizzle of dander/ amidst dreamy swarms of asters and trefoils”. As lovely as those words are—to scan, to speak– there’s also no action or movement in them whatsoever. The lines are descriptions of a kind of weather. Writer Elmore Leonard once said Never open a book on the weather. I’m writing here of a short poem, but still.

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Sometimes, its good to ‘seat’ the audience before a poem is read, to help guide them on how to listen to it. I recently wrote down –as a poem—the introduction for another longer poem, because folks seemed to appreciate my intro just as much as the poem. This is an outlier, a rarity. Mostly, if you need to introduce your poem, your poem is not finished.

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To the Frowning Woman in Back of the Room: I wanted to read directly to you and you only. Were you surprised or confused? Were you engaged or bewildered? You fascinated me even as I didn’t keep sweeping my eyes over to you, to see if I could lure your expression to change any. Your eyes are deep set and your concentration makes it seem like you’re either about to throw something or you’re totally zeroing in on the action. Respect. I was just curious. You didn’t speak to anyone and you didn’t need to.

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To the People At Poetry Readings Who Close Their Eyes: Thank you. I write for you. Smiling is like dropping coins into my tip jar.

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To The Man Who Complimented Me On A Metaphor I Used: Thank you. That startled me. That’s like dropping dollar bills into my tip jar.

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To The Laureate Whom Invited Me And I Nearly Walked Past Without Recognizing From When We Met Last Summer: Many Apologies. If you’re not in my face daily, on the regular, I really don’t know you. The last two people who stepped up to me and said the words: Do you remember me? I said to them both: No, do you have Alzheimer’s?
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To You: No, I didn’t get paid. Lyft drivers got paid. I could have pocketed some cookies, but didn’t bother. Its cool. At least I was home before 9pm.

4 Replies to “Ways Of Looking At A Poetry Reading”

  1. Hey James,

    I am the woman in the back of the room to whom you refer in your post. If I was frowning, it certainly wasn’t intentional.

    1. I’m insecure and projecting. I’m hard on myself and judgmental. I didn’t mean to use you as an avatar for my self assessment. But when seeing myself through others, i am usually a little snarky.

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