I went to a good poetry reading the other evening. But, boy, I wish I the poet hadn’t kept doing things that undermined his own presentation of his own work. The poet violated almost every rule in my unwritten how-to-do-a-poetry-reading rule book. Which spurred me to write down some of my rules.
Rule 1: Speak slowly. (But not too slowly.) Practice a cadence that allows you to speak clearly but that seems natural. I’m a great admirer of Carolyn Forche’s reading style, and Lucie Brock-Broido, for example. The poet I heard the other night spoke quickly in his intros to the poems, which I guess is okay, but he didn’t change his cadence much when he waded into the poem, and sometimes he was a line into the poem before I realized he’d gone from opening remarks into the poem. And some fine lines were thrown aside in his rush, like mud from churning wheels.
Rule 2: Use introductory remarks judiciously. Use them to provide backstory or to illuminate some arcane terms or references. If you’re going to introduce the poem, don’t tell the whole story of the poem that is already in the poem. This poet did this over and over again, including, for example, alerting us that there would be a quotation in the poem from poet so-and-so when the poem itself said “as so-and-so said….”
Corollary to Rule 2: It’s not necessary to introduce every poem.
Rule 3: Know what you’re going to read beforehand, and stick to the plan. It is boring and annoying to watch a poet change his or her mind several times in the course of the reading, including the classic leafing through the pages trying to find that one poem it had suddenly occurred to him or her to read, and saying out loud, “I think I’ll read this one, or no, I’ll read this one that I can’t find right now….”
Corollary to Rule 3: Keep an eye on the audience. If it’s getting restive, discreetly skip a poem or two and move toward ending the reading.
Rule 4: Check the mic beforehand, if you can, and figure out where you want your mouth to be in relation to it. I failed to do this at my last reading, and spent the whole time trying to subtly figure out where to be so that my voice got maximum leverage from the mic without popped p’s. This process annoyed me, and probably the listeners too. In the case of the reading the other night, as he moved naturally toward and away from the mic, the sound shifted distractingly.
Otherwise, this poet had a nice onstage presence, humble and engaging, and although my rule book says you should always stand, he perched his rangy length on a stool and that worked fine. I may need to amend the rule book in this regard. I’ll take it to the committee.