Let me be the first to state that I have given, and will probably continue to give cringe-worthy performances while I read my poetry to an audience. I can state this now thanks to YouTube. Any time I feel the need, I can watch my attempts to capture the crowd: the bizarre facial expressions, the theatrical hand movements and the long, gradual slide of my verbal pacing into William Shatner territory. I know what I look and sound like when I stand before the mic, and more often than I would like to admit, it’s not pretty. However, I will state this about my oratory skills: fail or succeed, there is an attempt to engage the audience.
For the record, I am a page poet. Nothing is more important to me than how my poems fair under the scrutiny of the printed word. In my world, on a piece of paper before a remote set of eyes is where my poetry lives or dies. However, I also realise that for as many people as possible to read my poems they first have to have an interest in reading poetry. This is where public readings play a very important role.
Before I go any further I should also state that this article is address to page poets. I believe that spoken word and slam is an art form unto itself, and given the size of slam audiences, they appear to have no trouble getting outsiders interested.
So, the question I would like to posit to the page poets is in regards to our audience: what happened to it? There was a time when the most successful of us were minor celebrities (before you respond, Cohen and Atwood are famous for their other artistic talents), now we seem to have become about as sensational as a society of birdwatchers. Some of you feel content having this status. I can only guess that it appeals to the world of rejection and forlornness that you feel all poets should inhabit. I remain, however, a bright-eyed optimist on the matter and feel the average person in far more inquisitive and open to ideas than you suppose.
There is always one. There is always one featuring poet on any given night, in any given city, who becomes the reason why curious, non-poet audience members decide to leave and never come back. After 15 years of attending poetry readings I have nailed it down to three factors that affect a patrons chances of heading for the doors or not.
The first is duration. Keep it to twenty minutes. If you have a forty-five minute reading, knock ten minutes off, and fill the rest with banter if you have to. Regardless of how good you are, no audience member has the capacity to pay attention to more than twenty minutes of solid poetry. And no matter how good you think you are, the subjectivity of the art form demands that there will be a good portion of the crowd that thinks your stuff is terrible. And please remember, no one is so good that they deserve to take time away from the other featured poets. Years back I read at the Idler Pub reading series (poets had the usual twenty minutes) with a lady who came up before me and read for a solid forty-five minutes about her garden. By the time I got up, the entire audience was spent, needless to mention the audience members, myself included, who hated gardening.
The second is voice. It is vital that you find a voice that a) suits the kind of poet you are and b) engages the audience. To be absolutely clear I am not suggesting that we all become slam artists. Wakefield Brewster can captivate an audience, in part because he has found a voice that fits his persona/personality. To the same extent, someone like Patrick Lane can sit on a barstool and quietly read from a book and captivate the audience in the same manner. If Patrick and Wakefield switched voices, there is a good chance they would either repel the audience or put it to sleep. In the world of page poetry, poor public readers usually come in two speeds snoozers or over-the-top Jim Carrey types. It’s not that quiet readers are better than gregarious ones, or vice-versa; it’s just that when a poet delivers a poor presentation, it’s because he/she hasn’t tapped into their voice. As for myself, according to my YouTube videos, I am still hit or miss, even after fifteen years. My advice here is to take advantage of YouTube, and watch yourself read. Also, look to other who have similar writing styles and watch what works for them.
Finally, someone once told me that, as a page poet, you will meet ever person who has bought your book. So it’s important that you comfortable reading in public. If you get the jitters about speaking in front of a crowd, the best way I found in dealing with this is exposure. I used to be terrified of public speaking, but teaching took care of that. For those of you not in education, you simply have to get out there. For better or worse, today’s world has neither the time nor patience for an agoraphobic poet.
Hope this helps.