Advice for Reading to an Audience, from a Humble Page Poet

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.

My House, Like it or ‘Meh’ it

The responses I get when I show people around our house fall into two categories.

The first is a mixture of two emotions followed by a physical response to conceal those emotions. This response usually comes just after I show guests the pastel green master bedroom. Shock and pity followed by a hastily constructed poker face.

The verbal translation: “Oh, wow. Ok. Cool.”

(A little aside: the house, of course, belongs to Lisa as well, so that explains the use of ‘our’)

Now, there are two other things I should tell you about our bedroom. One, there has been a strip of masking tape on the ceiling since 2006, when over-enthusiastic roofers knocked a little chunk of plaster onto our bed. Two, the pine floor we’ve been bragging about is actually just the polished subfloor. It would appear that the previous owner started the job of replacing the floor, but either ran out of money or thought to himself hey, if I just slather polyurethane all over this, I bet no one will by the wiser. Turns out, it was a good decision on his part. That floor has been a talking point for Lisa and I for six years.

The second kind of guest response that occurs during a grand tour of our house is a non-reply; an it-is-what-it-is response. This reaction is a little disconcerting at first because it looks a bit like stunned terror, and it usually comes after I show a guest our kitchen with its 1970s-style ceramic, micro-tiled countertop and glossy, deep orange cupboard doors. At this point, I really find it difficult to read the face of my guest. I myself often get confused when I enter my severely retro-style kitchen, thinking I’ve just walked into the Country Style Donuts of my youth. But then, my guest will nod his or her head and, without hesitation, utter a simple one-word response like “nice” or “cool”, and then move on.

This second type of response usually comes from the most practical and pragmatic of guests, those who live a life of low-maintainence, who travel light and usually by the seat of their pants. While I much appreciate their ability to overlook the 1997 Sony TV set in the living room, I always find myself justifying to them my luxury purchase of the Sony Playstation sitting on top of it. We can watch the best political documentaries from Netfix, really!

On the other hand, the first type of response, the shock and pity one, comes from those who appreciate life’s comforts. I may be merely speculating here, but they are most likely to believe there is a fine line between what constitutes a charming little house and what constitutes the domain of a crazy cat lady. My house, I believe for the most part, falls into the latter category for these types of guests. When showing these types around I always feel a bit like Mike Myer’s SNL character, Middle-Aged Man, who would grab the flab of his gut and windedly exclaim “I’m working on it! I’m working on it!”

And in truth I am working on it. We both are – sort of. It’s just that the novelty of DIY wore off for us in 2009, and choosing a contractor lately has been a worrisome as picking a winner from Besides, as of late there are just too many nice parks in the city and too many good sandwich shops within walking distance of the splash pads for us to sacrifice a sunny Sunday afternoon watching paint dry.