Monday, July 9, 2007


Just read this post about poetry readings by Irish poet Billy Mills at the Guardian blog. This topic seems to come up a lot: should poetry be read aloud to an audience or read quietly by oneself? Seems like a non-starter to me. I mean, you wouldn't hear a similarly framed argument for other forms of artistic presentation. Imagine: "The book: good or bad?" With readings, as with any other sort of format, there are good approaches and bad approaches, good performers and bad performers, good venues and bad venues--and everything in between.

It should be clear to readers of CLM that the oral performance of poetry is very important to yours truly. Not only do I post readings of my own poems and those of others here, but I've toured the country doing readings, self-published a CD of poems and have vague plans for expanding this venture to include CDs by other writers. When I read poetry to myself, I also read it aloud, because poetry at its best is an oral pleasure as well as an aural, emotional and intellectual one. And, frankly, I probably only write poetry instead of song lyrics because I'm too tone-deaf to be a rock star.

I love doing readings, even though I've done some crappy ones, in which either my performance, the venue, the audience or some combination of the three, were subpar. But the buzz I get from one really great, enjoyable reading makes up for nine mediocre ones. Same goes for readings I attend as an audience member. I go expecting crap most of the time, but hoping for gold. Enough turns up in the pan that I find it worthwhile to keep prospecting. And I'll travel a fair distance to attend a reading I know will be good. I drove to Victoria a few months ago, for instance, to catch Geoffrey Cook reading. I've read with Geoff in the past and know he does a knockout job. He didn't disappoint. And as an added bonus, I got to hear Martin Hazelbower's incomparably weird and brilliantly virtuoso performance that night. For me, such readings easily rival theatre or music as live entertainment.

I think most of the people who argue against readings don't like doing them. Solution: don't do them. If you do decide to do readings, for the love of Pete, RESPECT YOUR AUDIENCE. Rehearse what you're going to read beforehand, don't make it seem like this is the first time you've seen this strange piece of text in your hand. And try not to use the audience like a captive clutch of guinea pigs for testing out brand new material. Read the stuff with a bit of life, don't try to mimic its textual 2-dimensionality on the page. Whatever, please don't sublimate your own discomfort/dislike/ineptitude for public performance into some kind of "readings are bad" dogma. Yes, most readings are bad. But then, so is most "poetry" on the page. Not a coincidence.

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