Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Attending to the Audience

Recently I went to a poetry reading and came away less than impressed. It is fact that some poems work better on the page than they do in an auditorium. Those are the poems that need careful involvement, a second or third reading, a will to understand. Heard without being seen, they may sound like barely lucid noise. It is possible, though, to enjoy even disconnected, tough work if the poet engages the audience. It works less well if he/she speaks in a monotone, never makes eye contact, never looks up from the page on the podium, never gives the listeners a break between poems to absorb the images. To read headlong without regard for the effect on the crowd is, well, wrong. It bespeaks either stage fright or disregard for the audience. Neither factor entertains me. And while we like to think that poems are a cut above the circus act, we must not forget that our purpose is to connect with other minds, to amuse (See the word muse in there?).

I've heard hundreds of poets read, and it does matter to me whether or not they know I'm in the room. Not me specifically, but me as part of we, we the people. If you plan to give a reading, not a slam (about which I know little), please remember to interact with the audience. Look at them, even if the house lights are down and you cannot quite see them. Make an effort to make eye contact, the first level of communication. Of course, you won't mumble into the mike, nor will you drone on as if you were reading a grocery list--even if your poem is a grocery list, and that's possible. Body language and inflection make up a more impressive amount of communication than do words. Give a beat, with maybe a tiny intro to each, between poems. Read slowly enough to let the work sink in, but don't let folks nap. It's not hard to do a good reading, but it does require a will to be part of the crowd, however elevated you might feel on that podium.

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