The Trouble with Poetry Readings

Donald Hall recently wrote some observations on the ubiquitous poetry reading for The New Yorker. I won’t summarize it for you—read it for yourself here. It’s long, but worth your time.

It also got me thinking about all the readings I’ve done and attended.

I’ve been doing a lot of readings the past two years. Some sprung from an award I won. The award apparently got my name out to a few people I didn’t know previously (which is easy, because I know hardly anyone). Then early this year my first book came out, so I actively courted readings in the hope of selling books (sometimes it worked, sometimes not). When I’m not doing readings (which is most of the time) I try to attend as many as my schedule allows. Here I attempt my random observations on poetry readings.

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My first “real” poetry reading was (I think) D. Nurkse at Bucknell University in the mid-80s. I was a student at nearby Bloomsburg University, and one of my literature professors, who I occasionally drank with, took me to the reading. Around the same time I also heard Harry Humes there. It may even have been the same reading. Not sure. Either way, I got some books signed.

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 Since I go to a lot of readings I have a lot of signed books. Most poets try to write something nice (“thanks for the support…”). At that first reading, Nurkse just wrote his name at the top of the page like he was signing a math exam. After a reading at Bucks County Community College in the early 90s, where I was teaching at the time, Jack Gilbert not only signed, but also drew a little picture in my copy of The Great Fires. I try to write something funny, but often just scribble so people assume it says something funny.

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 As Hall notes in his post, many poets butcher or drown their poems at public readings. That’s why I have trouble remembering so many of the readings I’ve attended. Jack Gilbert was quiet, but he had a seriousness to his reading as if he was re-experiencing the poem in front of us. Thomas Lux punches his poems out like a nail gun. Robet Hass–I know I saw him in Philadelphia, but have no memory of what it was like.

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 Robert Bly often repeats himself at readings (not in the same way my grandmother used to repeat herself). He seems to truly enjoy the process of reading aloud, and when he comes to a line he likes (or thinks you should like) he says it again. Sometimes that means he reads the whole poem again just because he enjoys doing it. I like that, though I wouldn’t try it myself. You’d just call me insufferable.

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 I don’t know if I’m a good reader. I read my poems out loud all the time—as I’m writing, revising or just reading my poems over again. I walk around the house at night doing that. I’m not sure what my poems should sound like or what I should sound like. I recently had one audience member complement me on my reading style, and at the same reading another person asked me why I read my poems “like that.” I’m not sure what “that” meant. My wife says I hunch over when I’m reading.

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I envy people who have a strong reading voice–like a radio voice. Southern poets have a clear advantage. A southern accent makes any line sound cooler. I don’t think a southerner ever said that about a Yankee accent.

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 I have a personal rule: At every poetry reading I must buy at least one book (if books are for sale). If no books are for sale, then I at least buy something from the host venue (coffee, beer, muffin, whatever…). I’m always shocked when I see a crowd of 30 people show up for a free reading, and the poet only sells 3 books. That’s shameful. Books are cheap, and we need to support each other. I’ve been that poet. I once drove more than two hours for a venue where I was invited to be the featured reader. Only about 10 people showed up. One bought a book. The venue complained that I brought in my own bottle of water (I’d just come in from a pizza place), made me throw it out and buy another bottle of water there. Remember, most poets are unpaid for readings. Selling a few book copies is all we’ve got to pay for the gas and pizza.

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At that reading I traded a copy of my book with another poet for his book. Trading books with other poets is cool. I do that whenever I can. Also, if you like the reading, offer to buy the poet a beer, especially if it’s me.

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Should poets be paid for readings? If you’re Donald Hall, then of course you get paid. I’ve been paid about four times in my life for readings. One was a public library. Once was at a university, and it paid nicely (and included dinner). If you work at a University, please invite me to read. I’ll be gracious.

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At most readings, the host or venue treats the visiting poet very nicely, but there have been times… At a reading I did in Skippack (at a coffee shop that no longer exists), I got the impression that my presence was an inconvenience to the manager even though I was invited. The shop didn’t want to move any seats to accommodate a reading, didn’t want me to read too long because a guitar player was coming later that evening, and I was expected to pay for my one cup of coffee. Luckily, only about three people came.

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Sometimes you can tell when half the audience is only there for the open reading after the featured poet. They spend the whole time heads down, shuffling through their own papers, tapping on a phone… then jump up for the open period. Those people suck.

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When a host says you get 15 minutes or 30 minutes or whatever, does that mean you automatically get an extra 10-20 percent extension? I seem to see that a lot. Sometimes I mind. Sometimes I don’t. Usually the times I mind are when I’m last in line out of a series of readers and find out that now I’ve only got 4 minutes because we’re out of time.

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Applause. People should know by now that they don’t need to clap after every poem. Maybe an occasional spontaneous burst, but not EVERY poem. Save the applause to the end.

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I admit that my mind wanders during poetry readings. Unless the presentation is especially engaging (or it’s Donald Hall), I sometimes have trouble focusing, especially on long poems. Maybe that’s why I don’t write long poems. If any of you out there see that look in my eye while you’re reading, I’m sorry.

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At a reading at an art gallery I was impressed with how closely the audience was paying attention. Their eyes never seemed to waver from me at the front of the room. After the reading I realized that behind me were two life-size nude portraits , one of a lovely women and one of a very interested man.

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Sometimes I wonder why no one wants to sit in the first row when I’m reading. I don’t think I spray when I speak. Lately I’ve been trying to sit up front so I get a better view for taking videos with my phone.

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It’s late, and I’ve run out of ideas. Please add your own thoughts to this. If you want to hear me read, I’ll be at the Good Karma Cafe on Dec 2 with J.C. Todd.

Grant Clauser’s newest Book, Necessary Myths, can be found at The Broadkill River Press

 

Autumn Poetry Sampler at Greenshire

We rode out the big winds with minimal damage, so now I’m catching up on a post I neglected to update.

Anyway, last Saturday I attended the “Autumn Poetry Sampler,” a reading with four poets: Melinda Rizzo, Patricia Goodrich, Cleveland Wall & Geri Ann McLaughlin. It was held at a place called Greenshire Arts, a small arts and holistic studies facility just past Lake Nockamixon, near Quakertown, PA. Greenshire is a house converted to a series of gallery rooms. On this night the walls were decorated with photographs from Goodrich’s recent trip to Morocco. The poems she read that night were based on those photos.
I especially liked the format for the reading. Each poet read one poem, then moved on to the next reader. This continued until each has read six or seven poems (none longer than 2-3 minutes). It made for a nice variety, and occasionally the poems played off each other unintentionally (since the readers swore they hadn’t planned things out that way).
Some Moroccan-themed snacks were also available.
Here’s a video from the reading. Unfortunately I missed the title of the first poem, and maybe the first line.

Great line-up and the Ryerss Museum is one of the coolest venues for a reading.

Fox Chase Review

Join us for our last reading of 2012!

The Fox Chase Reading Series presents our featured poet/writers reading on October 28th @ 2pm featuring the poetry of Michele Belluomini and David Kozinski at Ryerss Museum and Library, 7370 Central Avenue, Philadelphia, Pa. 19111. The Featured Poets will be followed by an open mic.

Michelle A. Belluomini is a poet, storyteller and librarian. Her work has been published in journals such as The Mad Poets ReviewPoetry MotelAmerican WritingAPR: Philly Edition, and most recently in the anthology COMMONWEALTH: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania. Her chapbook, Crazy Mary & Others won the 2004 Plan B Press Poetry competition. You can read the poetry of Michele A. Belluomini in The Fox Chase Review at these links:2008 WS2009 WS2009 AW

David P. Kozinski won the 7th Annual Dogfish Head Poetry Prize for his chapbook,

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Jean Valentine Reading from “Lucy”

I went to the Jean Valentine reading last night at Bryn Mawr College last night. She’s a small woman who barely stood out behind the podium, but once she began reading, the room (packed, by the way) grew silent and attentive. Her reading style is sensitive, almost cautious of each word’s footing into the space. It was a entrancing evening.

She read mostly from her newest book, Breaking The Glass, released in paperback in 2010 from Copper Canyon. Among the most engaging of the selections is the sectional poem “Lucy,” which takes the fossil of Australopithecus afarensis, discovered in 1974 by Donald Johanson and affectionately named “Lucy” as a metaphor for lots of things–motherhood, humanity’s original state, loss. In the Q & A period that followed the reading, Valentine noted that she gets great comfort in thinking about Lucy–an ancient mother figure who’ DNA helped carve out our own path.

“Lucy, when Jane in her last clothes

goes across   with Chekhov

you are the ferryman, the monk

Ieronim

who throws your weight on the rope.”

Below are three videos of Valentine reading from last night.

Poems by Siegell, Saunier and Roarty from Rodger’s Place

Yesterday we had one of the most perfect weather days for the month of October–cool enough to feel like fall, but warm enough to feel comfortable spending the day outside. And how did I spend that day? By participating in one of Rodger Lowenthal’s poetry and music parties. These parties, held in Rodger’s Wyncote, PA backyard, aim to bring poets and musicians together for an afternoon of performances. The atmosphere was unpretentious and engaging for all. At this most recent one I joined poets Paul Siegell, Hayden Saunier and Joe Roarty along with several jazz and rock musicians to entertain a very welcoming crowd seated in lawn chairs.

Rodger’s backyard is framed by a tight barrier of tall trees (they would occasionally release a display of yellow and orange leaves on our heads), which helped amplify the sound resulting in pretty impressive acoustics (particularly for Joe Roarty’s barbaric yawp).

First, I want to thank Rodger for the invitation and for welcoming all of us to his home. He’s planning another one in May, so plan to be there.

Here are some videos I recorded at the party. All are wonderful poets, so I encourage you to look for more of their work.

Poetry House Concert This Weekend

Poetry and Music in Wyncote: October 21st, 1:30 pm

Rodger Lowenthal is Having a House Party!

Poets HAYDEN SAUNIER, GRANT CLAUSER, PAUL SIEGELL and JOE ROARTY… with special, musical guests playing blues, Irish, rockabilly, bluegrass.

Small desserts appreciated. $15 donation (all proceeds to poets + musicians)
HAYDEN SAUNIER is the author of the poetry collection Tips for Domestic Travel, published in 2009 by Black Lawrence Press. Her work has appeared widely and her most recent awards include the 2011 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry from Nimrod International Journal and the 2011 Rattle Poetry Prize. Her acting credits include The Sixth Sense, Philadelphia Diary, Hack, the voice of a broken-down stove for Ikea, and dozens of roles in the theatre. Raised in Charlottesville, Virginia, she now lives outside Philadelphia. (http://howapoemhappens.blogspot.com/2012/08/hayden-saunier.html)

GRANT CLAUSER is the author of the book, The Trouble with Rivers ( Foothills Publishing, 2012). He earned an MFA in poetry from Bowling Green State University where he was a Richard Devine Fellow. In 2010 he was selected as the Montgomery County Pennsylvania Poet Laureate by Robert Bly. He started the Montco Wordshop in Lansdale and he has conducted workshops for the Musehouse Writing Center and Philadelphia Writers Conference. His favorite dry fly is the Parachute Adams. (http://www.uniambic.com/)

JOE ROARTY has been shiprekkd on the shores of the susquehanna and has made his way 2 Philly. He is a performance artist who has performed his work across the United States.(http://www.foxchasereview.org/10SU/JoeRoarty.html)

PAUL SIEGELL is the author of three books of poetry: wild life rifle fire (Otoliths Books, 2010), jambandbootleg (A-Head Publishing, 2009) and Poemergency Room (Otoliths Books, 2008). Paul is a senior editor at Painted Bride Quarterly. Kindly find more of Paul’s work – and concrete poetry t-shirts – at “ReVeLeR @ eYeLeVeL” (http://paulsiegell.blogspot.com/).

 213 MAPLE AVE, WYNCOTE, PA 19095

DONATION $15.00. (All proceeds to poets & musicians)

Small desserts appreciated.

TO RESERVE YOUR SEAT REPLY TO

rodlow31@yahoo.com – 215-885- 5557

Just Received: Never a Note Forfeit by Catherine Staples

It was a good mail day yesterday. In addition to receiving some stuff from Amazon I ordered for my basement project, I found the chapbook, Never a Note Forfeit, by Catherine Staples. This collection was one of the co-winners of the 2010 Seven Kitchens Press Keystone Prize, selected by Betsy Sholl.

While I hadn’t remembered hearing of Staples before, it turns out we were featured in the same issue of Apiary a year or so ago.  Her poem in that issue is the first poem in this collection–and it’s a stunner:

The deer are skittish

grace, just faltering

prayers leaping away.

I love her imagery, but it’s her dexterity that most strikes me. Her line breaks, enjambment and sonics show her complete control of the her poems’ pace and stride. It’s as if each poem has it’s own unique gait you can sense, a subtle, but palpable music:

Cicadas rise stepwise

a sweet racket

that hums and rises.

I’m only about halfway through the book, and the second presidential debate is tonight, so I probably won’t get back to the book until later this week, but I’m really looking forward to it. Staples is a fellow Pennsylvanian from the greater Philadelphia area, so I hope to catch her at a reading sometime soon.

Check it out here.

A poem by Catherine Staples at Cortland Review here.

More about her here.