April 16, 2005

Thursday night's poetry reading

Thursday night I drove into the city to an art gallery housed in an old brick building that used to be a warehouse. A small gallery filled with white walls, some turned at odd angles, paintings hung carefully, and evening sunlight filtered through high glass windows. When I arrived, an old man was setting up chairs on the polished wood floor.

I'd spent about an hour choosing poems to read, arranging the order, then changing my mind, re-arranging again. The event was sponsored by a feminist group, and I was trying to imagine the audience, decide what they would want to hear. Like always, I ended up bringing way more than I needed. I knew that once the audience arrived and I'd gotten a feel for them, I would change my mind again. I was reading with two other poets, and they agreed to let me go first. Most poets don't like to go first, but I love the challenge of warming up the crowd.

My strategy for choosing poems comes from the advice given to me by MentorPoet. His formula: "Start funny, end serious. And always use the word fuck." He and I used to do readings together often, our poems playing off each other, and I hear his voice in my head whenever I am choosing poems.

By 7 pm, the room was full. Someone introduced me. At the podium, I took a breath and looked out at the crowd. About 60 people stared back at me, clustered on folding chairs, watching expectantly. I saw a few familiar faces, a handful of local poets, but mostly strangers, some of whom looked like they had no idea what to expect.

I began with a poem I've done many times before, one I know by heart. But it was new to this audience, and they laughed in all the right places. At the end of this first poem, they broke into spontaneous applause. I could feel the energy rising. I love a responsive crowd. That's the secret about this kind of reading: the energy, the warmth, the magic does not come from the poet. It comes from the audience. The poet is merely a moon who catches the light and reflects it back.

After the first poem, I walked out from behind the podium to get closer to the audience. Yeah, some people think that looks unprofessional, but I couldn't stay tied to the podium with this kind of group. I'm such a klutz that I knew I would eventually trip on the cord of the microphone, but I also knew from experience that the audience would forgive me for that.

After the first poem, I relaxed. What a terrific crowd. I moved to a serious poem, a poem about rape. By the third line, the room was silent. No noise at all, not even the shuffle of a foot or the shifting of a body in a seat, just my voice alone. Every face turned toward me, eyes watching intently. I could feel the tension, an undercurrent moving through the room.

A poetry reading has a certain rhythm to it, a cycle. I moved up and down the emotional scale. A funny political poem. A serious evocative one. A sad poem. Then funny again. This audience followed me closely, laughing at my jokes, listening intently when I was serious, their mood changing with mine, their energy moving in waves toward me.

It was an audience new to contemporary poetry, so I talked between some of the poems. I could not resist adlibbing: a responsive audience does that to me. I tried out a new poem, one that I worked on this week. All the time, I sneaked glances at the clock in the back of the room, keeping track of the time. I wanted to end with a serious poem, something thought-provoking. The goal was to be profound and not sentimental, but I sometimes mix the two up. I knew this audience would forgive me.

I read for only thirty minutes, and yet by the end I felt close to the audience. I was grateful for their willingness to listen, to trust, to follow my mood changes. The applause at the end made me feel a little uncomfortable; it felt good to sit down and become part of the audience for the rest of the evening. I could relax and listen to the other two poets.

Afterwards, I got to meet some of the crowd. People came up to buy my chapbook. I hate signing books. I never know what to write and I am so afraid of getting a name wrong. And I print rather than write in cursive which makes what I write look like something a school kid would put in a yearbook. That whole book signing thing is a tradition I'd like to see abandoned.

But I love meeting people. One woman came up and said, "Hey, I googled you." She went on to talk about stuff of mine she'd read on the internet, and I admit it seemed a little weird. I know that two of the discussion lists I participate on are archived and I'm fairly impulsive about what I post. But she mainly talked about poems, stuff I expect to be public, and she said only nice things.

Bearded Poet came over to give me a thumbs up, a snarky comment about an odd painting, and a kiss. NursePoet gave me a hug and said she liked my newest work. But the best part is that strangers came up to tell me their stories. A white-haired woman told me she was raped as at teenager and is just now going to therapy to deal with it. A young woman told me she struggles with bulimia. A well-dressed woman wearing purple glasses told me funny things she used to do with Barbie dolls.

I love this connection, the way that poetry can get people in a community to share their stories, themselves. Driving home, I was so full of adrenaline, the energy from all these people, that I could not sleep for hours.

17 comments:

timna said...

that seems so brave of you! yet obviously practiced and professional. I'm impressed.

wolfa said...

Would you be willing to share your poetry here?

reverendmother said...

Wow.

Change "poem" to "sermon" and you've described the kind of Sunday morning I live for.

Oh, and no applause for me. Well, sometimes.

I'll blog sometime about the class I took in seminary called "The Preacher and the Poet." Changed my life.

Dr. H said...

Thanks for giving us a window into your poetry reading experience. I loved this description of the energy at the poetry reading: "The poet is merely a moon who catches the light and reflects it back." I understand that from singing experiences.

Also, I did not realize you were a poet, actually, but given the eloquence of your posts, it makes sense.

Are all poetry reading experiences this great for you? Or was this a particularly good one? Or an average one?

jo(e) said...

Dr. H. -- This was a particularly good audience. Each reading is a bit different depending on who I'm reading to. I do like it when I'm reading to a like-minded audience because then I can toss in a lot of funny political poems. And they appreciate the jokes. But of course, it feels more important to read to an audience who needs their awareness raised.

Like the Young Republicans, for instance. Well, come to think of it, they've never asked me to read.

Wolfangel: I don't know how I could put my own work here and still remain anonymous. Besides, I've already posted poems by Sharon Olds, Audre Lorde, and Joy Harjo. No way am I following them! My stuff is awfully lame in comparison.

Reverendmother: I've got a poem about how every other Sunday, they should have open mike at church. Of course, I'm Catholic, so it will never happen ...

jo(e) said...

Another thing for Dr. H: Lots of performance poets incorporate some singing into their performances. I would so love to do that. But I am tone deaf and can't carry a tune. Alas.

wolfa said...

I figured the anonymity would be the problem, but it was worth a shot. I would have really loved to read some of your poetry.

Scrivener said...

Loved this description of the reading, especially the fact that people felt the desire to share their own stories in return. How wonderful! I'm not sure I've seen this at a reading before, and I think it says something in and of itself about you and about your poetry that it encourages that kind of two-way communication.

I understand the anonymity argument, but what's this about not wanting to follow after Harjo, Olds, and Lorde? I believe similar arguments on my part met with total disdain from you--and if you're worried about your poems standing up here, how terribly lame would mine be?

You could post a poem here that you don't plan on publishing elsewhere. You know, like a B-side. Then there wouldn't be any kind of anonymity problem, right?

jo(e) said...

David: As every poet knows, reading poems to strangers is WAY easier than showing poems to people you know. The blog community has become people I know ....

Wolfangel: do you have an e-mail on your blog? I'll send you some links to my poetry.

jo(e) said...

And another thing, David ... I have no way of knowing how lame your poems would seem because YOU HAVE NEVER SHOWED ME ANY OF THEM.

(Are they rhyming? Please tell me that they don't rhyme.)

Dr. H said...

Thanks for answering my questions, jo(e). LOL @ the idea of you reading for the Young Republicans.

I interpret my time cantoring during mass as an open mic experience, pretty much. Except I don't get to choose the piece, but I do get some say in the style of how the psalm is presented. I think there should be many more ways for the lay people to express and connect with one another spiritually during mass.

I agree with David -- post a poem that you haven't published! PLEASE! We would love it! We're a VERY FRIENDLY audience. :)

Oh, alternatively, I have an email address on my blog. I'd like to see the links to your poetry, too. *pretty please*

wolfa said...

I could show my *award-winning* poem. (Admittedly the award was "best essay on the topic "why chemistry?" for National Chemistry Week", there were about 4 entries, and I won a t-shirt and a poster of the periodic table, but it did indeed win an award! And it rhymes!)

Then everyone could feel better, because I guarantee that their poems are better than this one.

jo(e) said...

Wolfangel, I think you definitely should post your chemistry poem.

Dr. H, I will send you an e-mail. One of these days I've got to sign up for an e-mail that I can use on my blog. Everyone seems to have an e-mail address except me.

Nels said...

Oh, what a fantastic night for you! I love gallery readings like that, really fuels my creativity.

wolfa said...

Okay, well, I posted my, um, poem.

I should write more "poems" like that, I think.

Moreena said...

wow. That sounds like something I really need to do again. How could I have forgotten how wonderful it is to go to a great reading?

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