Sunday, February 23, 2014

How to Make a Reading a Performance

60º ~ sunny beauty ahead of another whack from another polar vortex headed our way later today through Wednesday..."uncle"!

As many of you know, I was on the road last weekend, giving readings with Jacar Press in North Carolina, and then, I had my Little Rock launch of The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths on Tuesday night. Despite winter storm Pax disrupting the beginning of my NC trip and causing us to have to cancel the reading at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, the rest of the readings were thrilling, with wonderful audiences and, in the case of NC, amazing co-readers.

During one of my readings, a poet-friend asked for advice on how to read well. I know that much of this has been said elsewhere, but here are my tips and tricks.

1. Think about the poetry reading you have enjoyed the least and analyze why. If it wasn't a matter of poetics and/or subject matter, it was probably a matter of performance. If it was a matter of performance, jot down all the things you would have done differently and implement that list the next time you read.

2. I want to be entertained at a reading. Yes, I know there is a difference between performance poetry (i.e. spoken word) and page poetry, but if folks are going to come out to hear me read, then I'm going to read like I mean it, and that means adopting some elements of performance, first and foremost, projection (of the voice). I'm a terrible actor, but I do remember the brief lessons in speaking from the diaphragm that I received in a college acting class. Those lessons have been priceless whenever I read.

3. If you are nervous about a venue, check it out in advance. The best option is to attend a poetry reading at the same venue before your own event so you can see the layout and watch how things run. In this past week I read at a coffee shop (espresso maker whirring, dish washer behind the bar chugging, chairs scraping, & etc.), at a restaurant with a stage (and a Southern debutante birthday party going on to my left as I read), and in the quiet cathedral of Richard Krawiec and Sylvia Freeman's home. In all three places, those who were there for poetry were amazing audiences. In the coffee shop and restaurant, it was my job to deliver for those who had shown up to support poetry and me. Here is where 'teacher voice' comes in handy in being heard over coffee machines and debutantes alike.

4. If you don't have experience using a mic, find a way to get some. Ask a friend who has access to a PA system let you practice. Ask the venue operator to let you come early for an event and do a sound check. Find out if there will be a podium or not. (I prefer not, but that's just me.) Be prepared to read with a mic and without, with a podium and without.

5. Know your poems. Know them backwards, forwards, and inside out. At every reading I did in the past week and a half, I flubbed one or two lines (in one case leaving out an entire line!) due to sound or movement distractions, but because I had the poems near-memorized I just kept going. I didn't have to fumble to find my place. When kids getting ready for music recitals are told to "just keep playing," there's a reason for that. Fumbling by the performer causes the audience to dis-engage, to check their text messages, to whisper to the people nearby, etc. Don't give them a chance!

6. Practice your performance. Just like an actor would mark up a script, I mark up the poems I will read. Yes, the enjambment and end-stops should be clear on the page, but when I'm in front of an audience, I don't want to have to guess, AND I don't want to have to scrutinize the page. I also make breath marks (sometimes a carrot mark, sometimes the abbreviation "br.")

7. Know the limits of your own eyesight. Many poetry books and journals use 10 point font. In the weird lighting of some venues, especially if a spot light is on you, there can be a shadow on the page. Do not hesitate to print your work out on regular paper in larger font. Even if you have a book, you can hold the book as a prop and as a publicity tool, then, just set it down and read from the larger font. I promise you, the audience will understand.

8. Acknowledge your audience. Try to make eye contact in between poems or in major pauses within a poem. The best trick for me is to locate one receptive person in the audience on my left, one in front of me, and one on my right, and read to them. These people might be friends or acquaintances; however, they are just as likely to be strangers. I pick them because of body language and their own eye contact with me. I use these folks as my thermometer to gauge audience reaction to certain poems and to tell me when the audience has had enough.

9. Let the audience know where you are in terms of your set list from time to time. For example, I might say, "I'm going to read two poems from my first book, and then focus on The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths."  Then, when I'm winding down, I will say, "I've got three more poems for you all." (Be sure to check the temperature of the audience and drop a few poems from your intended reading list if they seem restless.) As an audience member myself, this is reassuring and lets me know the poet is conscious of my presence in the audience. It will also give anyone pause if he/she is tempted to text or step out to use the wash room or the like.

10. Try to have fun. If you are tense, the audience will be tense. If you are calm and collected (or can fake it until you make it), then the audience will give you their trust.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

February: The Month of Travels, Readings, Panels, and More

29º ~ 3 inches of perfect snow, no wind, struggling to get above freezing, our "new normal" 20 - 30 degrees below our "old normal"

The weather has been downright Midwestern of late, but February is marching on, and it is chock full of poetry adventures and readings to celebrate the publication of book #2: The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths.

This past Thursday, we hosted Jericho Brown at the Big Rock Reading Series at PTC. It was a spectacular reading, and while a wee bit of snow earlier in the day dampened our turnout a bit, we still had about 50 folks there.

Next week, my travels begin. At the end of the week, I'll fly to North Carolina for the following events.

Thursday (2/13): Flyleaf Books Second Thursday Poetry Reading
Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, 7:00 - 8:30 p.m.

Featured readers at the monthly Second Thursday poetry series will be Maura High, author of The Garden of Persuasions, winner of the Jacar Press 2013 Chapbook Contest, and Sandy Longhorn, author of The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths, winner of the 2013 Jacar Press Full-Length Poetry Book Contest. 

Friday (2/14): Wake Tech Community College
Visiting Al Maginnes' classes at Wake Tech.  Wahoo!

I'll get to read to and talk with Al's students and also spend time with my po-brother!

Saturday (2/15): Second (Third!) Saturday at Tate Street Coffee House
Tate Street Coffee House, Greensboro, 7:00 - 9:00 p.m.
Jacar Press poets Maura High, Edison Jennings, and Sandy Longhorn will be traveling to Greensboro to read for us at Tate Street Coffee House on Saturday, February 15, at 7:00pm. 

This trip means I'll get to meet Richard Krawiec of Jacar Press in person and continue by onslaught of thanks for his publishing of The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths. I also get to spend time with friends I don't get to see nearly often enough, and I get to meet spouses and/or children I've only known through Facebook.  Wahoo!


Back home in Little Rock, I'll be gearing up for my Little Rock launch of the new book on Tuesday (2/18). I'm so honored to be launching the book here with a reading at South on Main, the restaurant associated with the Oxford American. As part of the extravaganza, my PTC colleague and friend, Dr. Barry McVinney will perform with his jazz ensemble, Trio Cabrito, from 7:00 - 8:00 p.m. Then, I'll take the stage (yes, there's a stage!) at 8:00 for some poems and some Q & A.

Double bonus...the food at South on Main is deeeviiiiine.


Then, we wind up the month with all things AWP (2/26 - 3/2). Seattle, are y'all ready for this?

At this point, I don't have any readings scheduled, but I'll have copies of The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths in my backpack, and a Square reader attached to my phone. Anyone want a copy?

I have one panel, so here is where you are guaranteed to find me. The panel will talk about setting up a reading series or festival at two-year colleges, which present unique hurdles; however, I'm sure much of the information will transfer to community events, four-year colleges/universities, or high schools.

vent Title: Here We Gather: History and Advice on Setting Up a Writers Conference, Festival, or Colloquium at a Two-Year College
Scheduled Day: Saturday, 3/1/2014
Scheduled Time: 12:00:PM - 01:15:PM
Scheduled Room: Room LL4, Western New England MFA Annex, Lower Level

Otherwise, I'm playing this one by ear folks. If you want my cell number, send me a message. Texting is the best and surest way of planning once my sneakers hit the concrete floors of the convention center.


My one request of y'all, Dear Readers, please do whatever weather dance, prayer, sacrifice, or ritual you do to make sure this winter weather blows itself right on outta here early next week, so we may all arrive safely and soundly, AND ON TIME, wherever it is that poetry/writing is taking us in the days to come.