Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Poetry Reading Styles: A Series of Questions

86º ~ lots more sun today than in the past few days together, heading back toward 100º for a high, good breezes in the high branches, nothing much in the lower

Over the past few days I've been mulling over a series of questions about how poets read their work in public.  These are not new questions and they have been with me for years and years.  I know that some of it is a matter of taste, but I'm wondering what you all think, Dear Readers.

In an oversimplified X versus Y formula the question is, to pause between poems, providing brief anecdotes, or to only read the poems and let them do the talking.

image from

I have this question as both a poet and an audience member. 

As a poet, I try to find a good balance in the middle.  I try to avoid explaining the upcoming poem because I know that the poem should speak for itself, and as an audience member, it drives me crazy when a poet explicates his or her own poem before reading it.  However, as a poet, I'm not comfortable reading just the poems with a brief, quiet moment in between.  As an audience member, when poets do this, the poems tend to blend together and get a bit "soupy" for me, unless I'm super familiar with the poet's work. 

This question has resurfaced because I ran into a colleague on campus the other day, and she had attended my reading on the 12th.  She is not a poet and not an English instructor, which becomes part of the mulling.  My colleague stopped me to thank me for providing the interludes between poems.  She said that poetry is so powerful that she needs a bit of down time between poems.  She also commented that sometimes my tiny introductions helped her get into the poems since she was relying on her hearing rather than reading.

Now, of course, my ego shone a bit brighter after talking to her, so take all of this with a grain of salt, but her comment got me to thinking about the poet's job as it relates to a non-poetry-writing audience.  When we do a reading, who do we imagine in our audience?  Are they mostly poets & writers?  If so, do they need less interluding and more poetry-only?  If there are many folks in the audience who are non-writers, or beginning writers, is the poet doing a good thing by providing "breaks"?

Another comment that has stuck with me since the reading is that one of the library staffers who attended the reading confessed that she isn't a huge poetry fan but that she enjoyed my book and my reading.  This got me to thinking about our opportunities to widen the poetry audience.  If we stand up and read to the audience as if everyone lives and breathes poetry 24/7, then are we hurting more than helping?  What is the poet's responsibility?  Does it change with the location / audience?  Does the poet need to adopt different styles at different times?  Is this a "betrayal" of the work?

All of this leads back to the question of accessibility, I suppose, and the poet's agency in creating a poetry community.  Lots and lots of questions there.  Let me know what you all think, if the questions interest you, of course.


drew said...

Sandy -

I ponder these same questions. How to read? Who is the audience? How to engage?

While there is no one answer, I think you touch on a very important issue: At readings and events, many (seasoned or accomplished) poets assume "everyone lives and breathes poetry 24/7."

The truth is, outside the small poetry world most people do not. They may want to love poetry but if they can't get in, or feel some connection, they will give up trying.

Let's face it: poetry can be difficult. Let's do all we can -- talk conversationally about our poems, hold readings outside academic settings,etc -- to make poetry more inviting.

Nancy Devine said...

very thoughtful post, sandy.
i, too, wonder about reading poetry. i think i'm a really mediocre reader; i tend to hurry...just like i do with most everything i do.
as an audience member, i do like a reader to talk a bit between pieces. but the talk must be about helping me understand and/or enter what's about to come.
i saw terrance hayes read. i suspect he talked between poems, but i could barely concentrate because he is really handsome. (maybe his reading shouldn't count in this discussion;)
the very best reader i've ever seen was billy collins. he did talk between poems.....just enough and not too much.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks for adding to the conversation, Drew & Nancy (Nancy Drew...hee hee). Drew, I think it is important to make poetry as inviting as possible, without dumbing it down, of course. Nancy, I've had to really work hard to keep myself from hurrying, too.

Michelle said...

As a person who appreciates poetry but can't write a poem to save her life, I would say that the most memorable poetry readings that I have attended have been ones in which the poet gave some context or some insight into the poems, either before or after reading them. I certainly appreciate hearing the poet's voice reading the actual poems, but if I am going to make the effort to go to a reading, I would like to get a sense of the person's story and what has gone into the poems. If the poet *only* reads the poems and does not add anything extra, I might think I should have just read the person's poetry on my own and not taken the time to attend the reading. This response probably reveals my naivete in reading poems . . .

Sandy Longhorn said...

Ah, Michelle, I think you touch on something interesting..the writer as a person beyond the writing. Reading just the poems would give us the music of the poet's voice, but not the person behind the voice/words, which is one of the things I love about going to a live reading.

Justin Evans said...

I was just talking about this on my blog. I think there needs to be some consideration for the audience and their expectations. If poets are going to defy expectations then we need to pick our battles, so to speak. We can't take everything from the audience and expect the reading to be successful---we need to make sure the audience has some ability to remain grounded in at least one aspect.

Take away too much and the audience will lose confidence in poetry as a means of a shared experience.

Fortunately, one of the easiest ways to keep the connection is to ease the audience along by talking about the process or the poems.

I find the best readings are always by poets who relate best to the audience as a person and not as a poet.

Sandy Longhorn said...

That's right Justin. I liked what you said on your blog about selecting poems to read based on who was going to be there. Thanks for reminding me here!

Justin Hamm said...

I took my wife's advice on this. I used her as a sounding board as I prepared for doing readings, and she told me that she felt it gave listeners a better chance to engage with my poems if I warmed them up for what was coming. She reminded me of what we both know as public school teachers -- and therefore teachers of novice readers: we all read better when we've been given a purpose.

Same concept applies for listening, so I did it as she suggested, and it went over really well. The comments and the specific lines people quoted back to me afterward that related to the way I'd prepped them was evidence that it helped them connect with what I was doing better. And a couple of people specifically mentioned liking to hear the lead-ins.

Accessibility is one of my biggest goals as a poet. And I think a little chatter between poems can boost accessibility.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Justin, thanks for your thoughts on this. Glad you had such a great sounding board as you prepared. That's crucial, too.

Supervillainess said...

One of my pet peeves at readings is folks whose introductions to the poem are longer than the poem itself, or re-tell the entire story of the poem in prose. Just read the dang poem already! And people who go over their time limits. That's a poet's prejudice of course :)
I do think that an audience of poets is different than a general audience; a reading at a bookstore is going to be different than a reading at a university or a writer's conference. We should keep that in mind. I have a planned "set list" when I read but always leave a few poems that can be cut or added as the mood of the room suggests. If everyone you read with is depressing, it might be nice to add a lighter note, for instance.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Jeannine, Yes, I, too, am frustrated when the poet over explains before reading a poem. However, being the curious sort, I do like to hear a small tidbit before or after the poem.

Ooooo, and people who go over their time painful and annoying.

This whole conversation has been so helpful. Thanks all!