On February 1 at Musehouse in Philadelphia Hayden Saunier and I will be reading from our new books. You should go. There will be snacks and wine. And poems too. And books for sale. And people to talk to.
When writing, I keep to a handful of rules, something to guide my work, like a handrail on a woods trail. I also have a tendency to change my rules when they no longer suite me. Here are today’s, which may be different from tomorrow’s:
- Don’t be boring. This is a big deal for me, but I assume I don’t live up to it on many occasions. I attend a fair amount of poetry readings and read a couple hours worth of poetry almost every day, so I know something about boring poems. Subject matter can be boring, language can be boring, titles can be boring. Today I’ll try use a lot of “t”s in my poems, because I think “t” is an unboring letter. We had a big storm earlier this week, you may have heard of it. Storms are not boring. The opposite of boring isn’t interesting, it’s just unboring. Mysterious, engaging, sympathetic, sentimental, dangerous, threatening, disturbing… are all unboring.
- Be trustworthy. A poem is an invitation to the reader—you want the reader to enter your world, point-of-view, sick mind or private delirium. If you don’t create a sense of trust, the reader won’t be engaged.
- Have a reader in mind. My first reader is my imaginary friend, and he’s a lot like me (but thinner and with more money and friends). Keeping a reader in mind leads to writing that is more trustworthy and has a clearer voice. Voice is purpose, and purpose implies audience. If you shout “piss off” into the air, it just floats away without purpose. If you shout “piss off” at your boss, it has purpose and voice. It also gets you fired, so have a backup plan for that.
- Always be nice to dogs.
- Don’t fear sentimentality. I’m a sap. I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” every December and will until my eyes are donated to science. People love that movie because they’re spineless and easily moved (me too). Work with it.
- Don’t try to teach something. You’ll be annoying, and people will think you think you’re smarter than them. Try to learn something instead. I believe poems, the good ones, are not for expressing something; they’re for sorting something(s) out.
- Shoot for clarity, but figure you’ll miss a good part of the time. When I’m fly fishing, I always have a spot on the water I try to hit with my casts. I usually miss, but often still catch fish. I also get snagged in a lot of trees. That’s the difference between almost clarity and complete abandonment.
- Sleep experts tell us that even complex dreams only last seconds—so poems shouldn’t be long.
- Don’t write dream poems. They’re boring, unless Richard Hugo is writing them, and since he isn’t writing them anymore, neither should you. Fiction writer Tana French agrees with me.
- If all else fails, throw it away and write another. Poems are cheap.
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.
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.
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.
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. Robert Hass–I know I saw him in Philadelphia, but have no memory of what it was like.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining a fantastic group of poets reading at the 25th annual (wow–25 years) Mad Poets Festival in Media PA. An impressive crowd of poets attended and read, including Joseph Farley, Leonard Gontarek (and his teenage son Max), David Kozinski, Allison Hicks, Peter Krock (editor of the Schuylkill Valley Journal) and many more.
A highlight for me was seeing Daniel Hoffman, the nation’s first Poet Laureate (before the title had that name) and winner of the National Book Award. He’s 89 years old,turning 90 very soon, and read a poem about that at the festival (see video below). I mentioned to him before the reading that I’d recently been reading his book The Center of Attention and was actively stealing ideas from it. His 14th book of poems is soon to be released.
A couple things to know first:
- It uses Realplayer, so you may have to download the plugin to view it. If you click the image, you’ll be taken to the Library of Congress page with the video.
- Jack Gilbert is quite old in this video. It may be the last public reading he’s done (this was 2006, so someone correct me if I’m wrong). He faulters, stutters and almost gives up several times. It can be painful to watch because the process was obviously a chore for him, but his delivery is still beautiful and chilling.
- Miranda Field–I hadn’t heard of her before, but immediately ordered her book Swallow. Her reading was amazing, especially the poems “Housefire,” which can also be found here and “Soloist.” Below is an excerpt from “Soloist”
I love the idea of a voice crawling like a vine, spilling like milk–beautiful. I’ve used a spilt-milk image myself (to describe moonlight), but this is much better.
If you’re as taken with that as I am, you can find her book here.