Monday, November 20, 2006

Giving poetry readings

Poetry Thursday's idea this week is: Go to a poetry reading.

I've been giving readings at least once a month for most of the last year. So I thought I'd share some of the things I've learned through this experience.

First and most important: By all means give readings. Poetry is meant to communicate. Reading it aloud to an audience is instant feedback; it's where the rubber meets the road.

You don't have to read your own work-- if you don't write, or if you do but are nervous of reading it aloud, read poems that you enjoy. The Pinsky Favorite Poem Project anthologies are a great source, with a wide range of poets writing on all possible subjects. Or you can devote an entire reading to the works of a particular poet whom you admire. There are no real rules.

Locations are where you find them. Talk to the owner of your favorite coffee shop or small (non-chain) bookstore. Chances are, they'll be happy to have someone come in and read on a regular basis. Find out if your library has a readings program. Volunteer to read poetry at a neighborhood school. Or you can invite your friends over to your house (in any case, invite your friends to your readings).

How often should you read? Depends on your time and energy, obviously. I've been giving two readings a month, and that seems to be about as much as I can manage.

Present a mix of forms. If you've been reading this blog much, you know that I'm a big advocate of formal poetry (meaning, rhymed and/or metered poetry). In my experience, formal poetry reads aloud much better than free verse. Remember that your audience is hearing the poems you read, not seeing them. The repetition of sounds in rhyme and the rhythm of meter makes it much easier for a listener to follow and remember the poem-- try having someone read you two poems you're not familiar with. Have one be, let's say, a sonnet (you can find all of Shakespeare's sonnets online at Shakespeare's Sonnets for this experiment) and the other a piece of free verse. You'll see there's a difference.

If you observe your listeners carefully, you will see that they engage much more intensely and much more physically with formal verse. Free verse, though it may feature just as much beautiful and moving imagery, just won't get them rocking and tapping and nodding along. In my readings, I've tended to present anywhere from 2/3 to 3/4 formal poetry with free verse making up the remainder. I also try not to have too many poems in a row of the same form-- predictability is generally not a good thing.

When picking out items to read, think carefully about the order you want to present them in. You may want to consider doing themed groups-- e.g. half a dozen animal poems, followed by a couple of seasonal pieces, etc. Some advice I've seen on poetry readings says you should introduce each poem with some remarks about it: as a listener this makes me feel ripped off, since I ending up spending more time listening to remarks about poems than to actual poems. Themed groups are a nice compromise, in that you can introduce the theme and then read several poems: of course, you can still make whatever comments you like about the individual poems.

Put all your poems on individual sheets. If you're reading from published volumes, photocopy the pages you want; it will save your cherished books from getting dog-eared and coffee-stained, and it's a pain flipping back and forth to find the poems you were meaning to read. Also, you can scribble notes on the sheets to remind yourself of remarks you wanted to make. Once you've decided the order you want them in, you can staple the sheets or put them in a folder to keep them together; for a large reading, you might want to use a three-hole binder.

The received wisdom on poetry readings is: rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. I find that somewhat overrated. Definitely be familiar with the pieces you're planning to read; for the first few times, give the whole set one complete read-though aloud so you'll know how long it takes. After a while, you'll be able to gauge that by the height of the stack. Don't stress about rehearsing. (I should add here that I've only given readings of my own writings: if reading works by others, you may need to spend a little more time getting familiar with them.) Don't try to memorize all your pieces.

Be alert to your audience, and makes notes of what works and what doesn't work. Don't be discouraged if your first couple of forays don't get the kind of response you want; you'll get better with each reading. Reading poetry is very much an interactive process, and there will be a lot to learn.

Finally, I'd like to add some historical perspective: Throughout almost all of human history, poetry has been a primarily oral medium. Until the Industrial Age, very few people could read, and printed or written matter was rare and expensive. Bards, skalds, or poets by any name, went from village to village and town to town, performing poetry for a living, and this was the only exposure most people had to the Third Muse. With the advent of cheap printing, we moved into an age where far more people would read a given poem than would ever hear it spoken. This may have been good or bad, but there's no denying it represents a profound change in how people related to this art.

To some degree, this trend is now reversing itself. It's becoming more and more common for books of poetry to be sold with CDs or DVDs of readings of some of the poems. Also there's been some growth of websites that distribute audio files of poetry readings, such as MiPoRadio and Audio technology seems to be catching up to the revolution in electronic print technology.

Live readings, then, certainly represent a bridge to the past, to poetry's roots. They may also represent a bridge to the future. Who knows? But if nothing else, giving poetry readings is a great way to share your love of poetry and encourage literacy in your community. If you write poetry, reading your works to an audience will help hone your skills. So go forth and read!

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