Friday, March 9, 2007

How Am I Doing for Time?

I go to a lot of poetry readings and have been doing so for years. Sometimes I wonder why. A persistent masochistic streak, I suppose. Most poets are just so bloody oblivious to the basics of public speaking, never mind dramatic performance, that watching them read is more irritating than enjoyable. Some poets appear so uncomfortable you get the impression they'd rather be doing anything else. Granted, the skills required for solitary writing and those needed to engage a live audience are vastly different, but if you're going to attempt the latter and don't feel at ease with the task, it is possible to improve through practice and training. Take voice training, an acting class, public speaking lessons, something! At least rehearse what you're going to read a few times before you take to the podium. Your audience came to hear your poems; you owe it to both auditors and the poems you've worked so hard on to give them the best possible performance.

Which doesn't mean being dramatic and hyper-intense. A lot of poets who don't suffer from a surfeit of meekness kill the mood with Anne Sextonesque melodrama, all snarly and growly. It means reading with expression and emotion, not in that ponderous, pretentious tone known as "poet voice," which. is. supposed. to. emphasise. the. words. but, wholly unnatural in its androidal absence of klangenfarben, actually has the opposite effect, drawing more attention to the reader of those words, not less. It means knowing the text of the poems well enough so that, even if you don't have them perfectly committed to memory, you at least don't stumble over your poem as though it were some strange speech written by someone else in a language you only recently started learning. And it means not running on at the mouth with endless, rambling introductions to the poems; this is a surefire way to get your audience daydreaming before they even hear the poems themselves.

Although I respect a poet like Don Coles who is famous for not reading his poems in public (much to the consternation of his publisher when Coles' Forests of the Medieval World won the Governor General's Award in 1993), this seems to me an extreme position. If you're publishing a trade book, isn't it a bit disingenuous to despise public performance?

There are a number of poets I love listening to. John MacKenzie is one; before John published his first book, I checked out a reading he gave in Charlottetown, PEI, and was mighty impressed. Pleasant surprises like that one--along with the above-mentioned predilection for self-torture--are what keep me coming back to readings again and again. George Elliott Clarke is another top-notch reader. His high-energy style verges on the bombastic, but that's a fitting match for the sound-rich lushness of his writing and a quite authentic manifestation of his outgoing personality. You'll never catch George asking timidly how he's doing for time (a major pet peeve of mine: if you have a hunch you've been up there too long, best to assume that you have and wrap things up; at worst, you'll leave the audience wanting more, which is never a bad thing) and he has vast swathes of his own work committed to memory. The American poet, essayist and funeral home director Thomas Lynch is another excellent reader. I first encountered his work at a reading he gave at the Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal a few years ago. His dayjob has no doubt helped make him comfortable in public settings. And I posted a little while ago about the outstanding reading by Anne Caston I attended recently. In both cases, strong readings were what persuaded me to take their books home with me.

Public reading has always been an important and enjoyable facet of my own writerly vocation (This is probably another thing that keeps me coming to other poets' readings; not terribly reasonable to expect people to attend your events if you take a pass on theirs.), at least as important as print publication. Probably more so. I actually seek out reading venues, whereas I gave up sending out unsolicited submissions to magazines and publishers some time ago. Last year, I embarked on a 22-reading cross-Canada tour which I'd organised myself. Dani Couture interviewed me about it a while back for Northern Poetry Review. One of the biggest obstacles facing living poets in this country is geography; a lot of poets, some of them quite good, get read by very few people outside their home region. The only really effective way to change that is to make personal contact with an audience. And try to make that contact as memorable as possible.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Zach, why give up on sending out magazine submissions?

Michael Reynolds