Sunday, April 29, 2007

Should a poetry reading be entertaining?

Had a great time at Burning Word Saturday. The weather was beautiful — albeit a little blustery at times — and much better than last year's howling winds and rains. It seemed the turnout was even larger than last year, and it was a hoot to see old friends, new friends, kids from the local high schools and colleges, and more. It worked well to having two reading venues to choose between, and it was pretty easy to go back and forth between the two of them, and listen for a while, and move on.

I think my reading went over fairly well. I just love reading the word-play poems, and the audience seems to really respond to them. But that brings up a question: *should* a poetry reading be "entertaining?"

By that I mean, when you are choosing which poems to read, do you think of your audience, and try to make your reading as engaging and (I hate this word) "accessible" as possible for them? Or do you simply read what interests you at the moment, perhaps even something that is difficult or in process, and let the chips fall where they may?

The reason I bring this up is that one of my favorite poems in What's Written on the Body is "October Journal." But I have never read it in public because it is kind of long, very calm and meditative, not *funny* at all, and perhaps more than a little romantic and sad. I think it is a good poem. I love the language and the look on the page of the cascading and wandering lines. But I don't read it because I fear it may bore an audience, that it may be one of those poems that just does better on the page, where a reader can be with it on their own terms, one-on-one, rather than read before an audience, where there is very much a group dynamic going on.

What do you think? Do you have poems of yours that you love, but that you don't ever read in public?


PS: Erin has good news.


Collin said...

I have a number of poems that I love that are dark and personal that I've never read in public, although I'm trying to work up the nerve.

By the by, I did a Poetry 101 workshop yesterday and read "Anagrammer", which everyone loved!

Radish King said...

Fuck the audience. If you read well (and you do) and read what sets you on fire the audience will come with you.

Justin Evans said...


I have lots of poems I love but never read in public because, well, I don't ever get to read anything in public outside of the classroom (and I refuse to read my own poetry to my students).

You should read the longer poems---challenge the audience, make them itch.

Oliver de la Paz said...

I usually read a range of things. If I've got a longer poem, I make sure I've got some shorter things to go with it. If I'm running on the dark/severe side, I try to balance with something a bit more fun for me and the audience.

aka Leonardo Likes Gulls said...

But that brings up a question: *should* a poetry reading be "entertaining?"

***Not necessarily entertaining, but it should be interesting for people who have shown up. It should be passionate and well thought out.

By that I mean, when you are choosing which poems to read, do you think of your audience, and try to make your reading as engaging and (I hate this word) "accessible" as possible for them?

***I don't think about my "audience" when I'm writing, but yes, when I'm putting together a reading I definitely do. I don't think the poems need to be "accessible" if you give a little insight before the poems, but definitely, readings should be engaging. a perfect word.

Or do you simply read what interests you at the moment, perhaps even something that is difficult or in process, and let the chips fall where they may?

***This is why we have friends and workshops.

If I read more difficult (which I've done) I'd set it up. Say, this is a longer piece, if you get lost, we'll be back to pick you up in section two. Set up the poem a little for the audience and say why it's important to us and why we want to share it.

Once I read poems I've never read in public at a reading and explained why I had never read each of these poems in public and it was one of my best readings ever.

One thing though--
I just read Charlie's blog about Gwen Stephani. Imagine if she didn't care about making her concert interesting or entertaining for her audience. What if she showed up, shifted through some papers and said, "I'm going to sing 'Little Bunny Foo Foo' because it reminds me of my childhood.' Then what if she proceeded to sing that in a plain voice then thought for a few moments and said, 'I wonder what else I should read.' then said, "Here's a new song, something I wrote this morning...." then stumbled through a love song.

It would be intriguing and entertaining for a rockstar as it never happens, but I can name too many poetry readings that have gone on way too long like this. I think poets need to practice and act like good readers, even if we're not, we need to think about the audience. I'm not saying lose our creative intrigity--those are our poems, that's our writing, so we will always have that. But when reading, I think being thoughtful to the people who have come to listen and support us, yes, consider them, of course.

my more than 2 cents. cha-ching!

Joannie said...

I think that it's important to think of the audience--they have come to hear you read. But I don't think that means you have to spoon feed them entertainment. I try for a mix of topic and energy and length. Also, what's long for one person might not be long for another. I was nervous once about reading a pantoum, but after the reading someone complimented me on how that poem and how short it was.

Oliver de la Paz said...

Here's the thing about this . . . I love Chan Marshall, lead singer of Cat Power. I went to hear her perform her work in Washington D.C., and paid some good money. I also drove an hour and a half to see her with some Gettysburg College friends. Her performance was horrible. She sang some of the same songs three times, as if she didn't care we were there. She moped around on stage. She absolutely had no presence.

Now I'm not saying you shouldn't read longer poems, or poems of a particular tone, but I do think a poetry reading should be seen as an "orchestral movement." There should be rises, falls, and moments of drama. I also think it's better to go shorter than longer with reading times.

Riffing on K.A.

My $.2 Cha-ching!

P.S. You're really a great reader, so you shouldn't worry.

Laurel said...

I just wrote a really long response to this and it got eaten. But in short, I feel strongly that the best reading is a reading FOR the audience.

That doesnt mean it has to be punchy and funny, but it has to be good. If you (like Dan Beachy Quick, for instance) can pull off a long meditative poem out loud, go for it.

But I HATE (and feel disrespected by) readers who seem to be doing it for themselves, who (for instance) ask me in their intro, to "imagine" certain kinds of linebreaks (if it matters that much, bring a slideshow or powerpoint, yo!), or jump into a long sequence in the middle, and hope I can "hang with it" or something. Or read too long.

I write for myself, but (in theory) read and publish for the audience. I think its an issue of respect. I don't think we can expect people to attend "for art's sake". I think we have to give them a product they'll enjoy/learn from/whatev...

nancy said...

The radish king made an intersting comment: "fuck the audience." Is fucking something that happens with someone, or to someone? What sort of intercourse do you want with your listener? Are you there to feel yourself, glorify yourself? Is giving a pleasure? Is it the same with every audience? Who is the one-night stand crowd? Who do you love? And how do you feel in the morning? :)

Peter said...

Fascinating comments all.

I think I'll try reading the long poem sometime. And give some love to the audience as I am doing it.