I have notes towards posts but not the headspace or schedule just now. There’s one jot I’d like to share and that’s on doing readings.
I used to be dead a week on both sides of doing a 20 minute reading and 2-3 days for reading for 2-3 minutes. I’d be re-alphabetizing the books shelves and cleaning the grout with a toothbrush, cleaning stove with toothpicks. Paul Dutton counseled me that life is too short to do what you don’t enjoy. If giving readings upset you that much, there are other things you can do with poetry. You don’t have to give readings.
But then, it’s not as if writing comforts or is easy. It and editing throws one off balance but not as much as not writing does. At least by writing and performing more, I get better. By pushing boundaries out, I prevent them from pushing in like Indiana Jones’ walls.
Part of anxiety is global. I had the habit of living in the yellow band of warning too much anxiety. I had to bring that all down so it would take less to push me into the red. That’s a life pattern. Part of that is unfamiliarity with speaking in public. Which is odd given that I taught classes for a decade. But talking to a group from someone else’s book is a different risk than talking from one’s own book.
With a class or with an audience, I’m more comfortable the larger the group. I think that comes from the same cause. Talking to 6-8 students, they act as individuals. They vie to have individual agendas met. Talk to a class of 30 and they understand intuitively that it’s a different social contract. For anything to get done, they have to act more as a unit. They recognize teacher-fronted and click into mental mode of being receptive or leaving.
For a small group, it feels like an awkward conversation. Shouldn’t be just talk in pairs or in small groups in a natural way? Poetry seems unnecessarily circuitous. Once a certain number of people convene, it becomes more natural to use other modes of talking, speeches, formal thought structures that aren’t personally aimed. That social distance is part of the way we respond to ratios of ears.
3 to 4 years ago I used to go blind and deaf with anxiety for the 2 or 3 readers before me in an open mic, or most the the entire reading before me in a 2 or 3 person reading. A couple years ago that reversed in that I got jitters when it no longer mattered, afterwards, when I could afford the time. That made me able to be more present when I was up front.
Now, on a good night, I’m likely to not hear half of whoever comes next in open mic (2-3 minutes). If I’m sick, or tired or running towards the red line for stress from whatever accumulated reasons, I can’t hear the next 2 or 3 people.
Taking photos or notes helps because it forces me to be on top of the moments as they cascade, as the picture or words approach, come into being, and I catch it or don’t. It gives me a focus to stay present. Even still for a few minutes my arms shake so badly that I can’t get a good shot even propping the lens on a makeship tripod. That’s still easier than making legible hanwriting at that point. Sometimes taking photos impedes hearing or being present. When I realize I can’t do both, I’m either going to put the tool away or make sure I get a shot and hope the person is still talking when I’m done.
What is a good night? When a reading works, once I’m on stage I’m clearer-headed than at any other time except during sustained days of editing. I’m in a flow state. Time slows down. I can take in and parse much more than normal. I can improv, banter, edit poems on the fly as I read. I can see what’s flying and what’s not and change the set list based on how it’s going.
When a reading works I can take in the mood in the room, the collective body language. I can open up my chest. I don’t feel nailed to the floor. I can get a full breath. I stay in the words. My voice is deeper. I can project it more easily. I’m my best self. I’m funnier and I gesture more, and less, than the paralysis alternating with flapping of a worse night.
When it doesn’t work, I can’t see anyone. I’m less likely to be audible even with a mic. When a reading isn’t working, I’m dampened down.
It doesn’t become an energy rotating between myself and those present. I can’t read the audience, or I’m in such a funk that I don’t care what they think. I can’t stay within the words. I don’t care about outcomes. I may be still able to draw on what I’ve learned and read on automatic, remembering to breathe, not race thru words and have backup notes to add thanks and connections between readers, but I know I’ve failed my own aim, even if it gets compliments afterwards.
Doing what you do and not being attached to outcomes can be good.
You give it your best shot, the old college try of where you’re at, the best that you can do of who you are, where you are, what you have to work with for skills, material, physical space, audience and energy. But detaching too soon and it’s not going to be a good reading.
The after is different. I get a boost of energy. I may be wound-up with energy, positive or negative. I may carry clear-mindedness forward for a few days or walk away with an exhaustion from doing a poor show that negates benefit. And that’s at a point where I no longer flog myself in the post-mortem.
There’s an obvious advantage to getting a better outcome.
Part of that is confidence in material. Part of that is the structure of the room. Can you see what you need to? Is the shape of the room and the background sound such that you can hear the audience? If there’s a sound system is it set right? Can you use the mic properly? Is the room warm or cold so far as attention?
It’s frustrating reading in a space where there’s every person for themselves. Especially if the person reads and then leaves without being part of the community. In some rooms on some nights when the majority is there to read not listen, there can be an anxiety as palpable as if you opened a room full of teenage hormone smell. It sets other people on edge to have one person on edge. On the other hand it only takes one person to defuse that and relax other people. One person can present a model of calm. We’re odd lemmings that way, and our empathy can go either way.
Each person is adding something to the mix. The audience may be mixed, or arm-crossed skeptics or with fidgety people who don’t want to be there but refuse to bail and let others enjoy, or if the room is able to convert to open body languages all change the experience for everyone else in the room. And that’s before we consider the effect of everyone else who reads or what anyone actually says. Or the social side of chatting with others, before or after. In a rare reading the room comes to the point of breathing as if with one lung. I’ve only experienced it a few times but it strikes me as the ultimate example of hope, community, like massed choral song. Cooperative vision.
I do readings not to achieve that rare thing, but because it gives a real feedback on what I’ve composed. People can’t prepare their answers the way a workshop or email response can. It adds up to a response of real time. Part of the response is to how it is presented. I share to be shared with. It’s part of progression within a community to not just listen but speak.
As Jennifer Pederson was describing in her voice workshop, a good reading can make a mediocre poem seem great or kill a very strong poem by a flubbed reading.
Giving a reading, you can hunch around a poem so it isn’t visible, just your nervous ticks. Or giving a reading you can project confidence and play the way a seal might bounce a poem off its chest. That can be a nervous affection as well.
Either way that is not setting the poem in the best context to be heard. It’s obscuring it. Some people are adept at hearing around the noise of how a poem is presented and hear the poem. Some aren’t. Both will be in any given audience.
Part of the presentation is the entertainment factor, not just the poem as some word-object, but a piece of a relationship with the person, part of the thick information about the person, part of getting to know a person. When other body language bleeds into the unscripted bits, its okay for those who are seeking an experience at a poetry event. “This is the function of poetry. To make people experience.” — May Sarton
For those who just want the poem, the skills of not standing in front of the words, like speaking clearly, thinking and writing to be seen, mean that that part of the audience gets served as well.
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