How Do We Fix Poetry Readings?

Fri, 29 Nov 2013 17:00:38 +0000

Last Sunday, I went to a poetry reading. It was a joint reading by two indie publishing collectives, the New York indie press great weather for MEDIA and a local publisher, Printed Matter Vancouver. It was a nice evening: Christopher Luna read a standout poem about the Black Dahlia and the Surrealists, Gina Williams enlisted fellow poet Brad Garber to read the one-sided dialogue in a very funny poem about eavesdropping, and Jane Ormerod closed the show with her epic, breathless paean to drinking, “Raging Bull.”

But although the reading got many things right—brisk pacing, an excellent venue (the Clinton Street Theater), and an unusual hook (the great weather poets were on a “=reading tour across America)—the venue was mostly empty. No doubt there were mitigating factors—it was a Sunday, after all—but it wasn’t exactly surprising. I’ve been to some raucous, well-attended readings (literary pub crawl LitHop comes to mind), but more often than not, they are low-key and often inadvertently insular. A friend of mine who isn’t in the literary community once described feeling “like an atheist in church” at poetry readings. It got me thinking about what we can do as publishers, curators, and organizers to help make poetry readings the kind of events that strangers might stumble upon and stick around for:

  • Have the reading in a fresh setting. There are only a few settings considered “ideal” for poetry readings, and I’d argue that many of them are actually not. If you’ve ever seen someone slowly back out the door of a coffee shop when they realize a poetry reading is happening, you know what I’m talking about. One of the best readings I went to this year was the Future Tense-sponsored reading at Colonel Summers Park. It was a summer evening and the audience was spread out on blankets, eating and drinking. There was activity all around—kids playing catch, people walking dogs, sounds from the street—but this made the reading feel like a true community activity. The open setting also allowed people to drift over and see if they liked what they heard (and wander away gracefully if they didn’t).

  • Present funny poems. I’m not saying that everybody has to read a limerick, although that’s a great idea and someone should do a reading exactly like that. But humor is disarming, so encouraging poets to mix in a poem that is witty, dry, or even (especially) perverse can help convince the casual attendee that poetry can actually be a lot of fun, which is a thing almost no one believes. This is true for prose readings, too: funny pieces always kill.

  • Encourage poets to think about the performance of the poems they are going to read. Not everyone has to be a slam poet, and not everyone should be. But it was delightful to watch Williams and Garber trade lines at Sunday’s reading, and it made me wonder why more poets don’t take advantage of the endless performative options for interpreting their work. I’m not saying that every poet needs a backup band (but do check out Ormerod’s jazz band-backed performance of “Raging Bull”). There are performance options that don’t require instruments or a projection screen or a gospel choir. It might be as simple as learning to project a little better.

  • Gimmicks! No one is too good for a clever gimmick. I’m a sucker for theme nights, and chances are you are too. How about a night where everybody reads poems they wrote that day? How about a night of nothing but sex poems, or city poems, or Battlestar Galactica Poems?! Tell me you couldn’t get fifty people to go to that.

There are great readings in Portland and lots of people doing innovative, wonderful things. But I think we could create a bigger, more diverse audience for the work we’re doing and the art we’re creating. This is how I would do it. How would you?

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