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A Reading as an Event

The poem on the page moves relative to the time and place and headspaces of the readers. It can be remarkably unstatic. Some people kill their poems brutally, fatally dead by their reading style. Sometimes it’s better for the poem to be read by a surrogate reader. Some people make a rather plain common poem terribly exciting by injecting their live energy into it and then you bring it home and look for the glass slipper’s owner.

Poetry sharing is a performance. Some people own the room by commanding attention by movement, by loudness, by quietness, by stillness, by varying. The question is more expecting attention than how to get it. One can make a soundwall of shout and tone variance that is amateur theatre, yet not command attention. One can read in a flat intonation yet despite it, come across or stay flatlined in attention. One can whisper and own the room or whisper and get talked over. It isn’t the what of technique but some underlying how: Expect to be dismissed and you issue a command to be ignored that an audience unconsciously will pick up on and obey.

Variable(s in) performance are environmental enrichment, not a guarantee of a better or worse performance. What would you like to do? A bored reader is a bored audience. A poem can be read as a speaking voice, or in poet’s voice intonation, flatter than the prairies, perhaps with valley raising. It can be singsong. It can support or distract from the text.

Audiences have a habit of sitting and taking whatever comes. Once one reader loses one person in a poem, it can spread to others thru looks and twitches and the audience may be gone for the night, but still there, gone to their happy place or their disgruntled place. Each new reader may revive hope of something go. A person may fade in and fade out. The collective vibe of the room may sustain hope and energy high as a community love-in support that keeps people engaged.

If that doesn’t happen, how to reverse the stupor and low expectations of enduring a reading?

You can read polished material that is fully thought through, or try new material but the audience is there for a ride.

You can go thru a story arc of poems that start profound or comic or affable, with an entry point that is a sure sell, a handshake that isn’t too intense but not dead-fish limp either. Or you can start in with a shocker poem to wow, then step back, do intro and then start in slower again and build thru serious and lead thru a crescendo and leave at the high point or carry everyone thru tension then back to an exit station of feel good.

Often a reader stops moving except for the eyes. It means you can fall into the sound, close eyes to visual or get distracted by verbal tics, such as counting the number of ums (open mic people), rolling rrrrs (Robert Bringhurst) or disproportional poetic frequency of word, ghost, crepuscular, etc.

Uncommon things readers I’ve seen do to make a performance more engaging:

  • special edition broadsides or pamphlets or even chapbooks for those who come (Amanda Earl, Marcus McCann and Angela Leuck)
  • get audience to repeat chorus phrase (Kevin Matthews)
  • get people to make a sound wave across the room of hand rubbing or finger snapping (a novelist I saw in the 80s)
  • have a video playing in the background that complements and co-performs with the material (Zorras)
  • have a musician improv around the poems (wind instrument with various readers spontaneously developing in a Sasquatch series, a troupe playing with the ghazals at writers festival, a response to haiku at the 2010 KaDo performance)
  • strip (2011 versefest erotica showcase)
  • have objects for talking points (Phil Hall)
  • walk in among the audience as a single reader or as a group reading (Roger Nash I believe it was, and Max Middle’s sound group)
  • manipulate the physical venue into props, taking the foam off the mic and making it a clown’s nose then a juggling ball that tied into the poem being read (Erin Moure)
  • remix own voice in layers and play it back with live performance as another voice (Czandra)

Extraneous things I’ve done for readings:

  • use a sound machine to make interjections of noise
  • change between hats for different voices in the poem
  • play computer voice sounds for portions of the text
  • blow bubbles
  • print small poems and give them out in fortune cookies
  • build a catapult collaged with words from the book being launched and launch candies and nuts
  • make it a read-along writing short poems on large sheets for people to read out
  • have the reading outside with papers on the wall for people to add their own poems
  • take photos of audience from the podium
  • balloon prize for who gets one of the quote sources from a cento

People respond differently. Some of the audience find such things unnecessary and distracting and want the straight intoning. Some, perhaps most, find it expanding the experience in a good way. It is more animate and distinct from reading aloud what one can read for oneself.

There’s the unpinnable variable of personality and chemistry with the audience member. There’s skill in that, in not standing in the way of the poem, in asking to be heard, in speaking up and standing up and delivery. It’s not the full picture; there’s performing it in the right place and season to the right people. You can read the audience and adapt your energies to it and then, with real skill and practice and luck, bring their energies with you and a circle of energy looping a feedback takes off. There’s where magic lies.

But if a poem captures tone well in text, it should transfer without the writer being present. Seeing the writer read sometimes completes the poem or gives a director’s cut edition that makes it more interesting. It makes the text something else which is why some people have versions of a poem for oral and another customized for being a read text.

Some write more as jazz or mental theatre and live reading varies and inflects more. Some compose a score of words that is more set and aiming to stay gelled just so. The mellifluous stream should travel smoothly without dams to cause pauses except to breathe in natural spots.

Some attitudes towards the world naturally fit the relationship of playful delivery. Some relationships to the text are more sombre and it wouldn’t be appropriate to break out into a trumpet. Sometimes it isn’t necessary to do more than storytime sharing aloud. No bells, no whistles, literally. But then, sometimes bells are fun. Resources are there to be played with.

What serves the particular poem best?

If the reader is comfortable and engaged, that sets the tone for the audience to be engaged. Poem and poet serve the audience its food for thought or entertainment, or does not.

P.S. Happy International Poetry Day, all!

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  1. Well said. (picture a musical fanfare accompanying my post…)

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