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.