Why to Go to a Poetry Reading

So I recently gave tips on how to attend a poetry reading, but why should you? What about them makes it worth your time and effort? Why leave your comfort zone for it? Here are some reasons I find apply to me.

  1. It gives me perspective. As I hear different styles of poetry read in different ways by  different poets, I maintain a realistic opinion of my own work. I’m reminded of how subjective it is; I am left feeling neither inflated nor deflated about it.
  2. It gives me ideas. When at a poetry reading, I am listening without distractions and my mind wanders in a specific way that promotes new connections. It’s common for me to get a flash of inspiration for a new poem I’d like to write. I keep paper and pen handy during a reading and jot things down between poems. By the end, I have a bizarre mishmash of seemingly random words and phrases that carry the seeds of multiple new works. I may or may not follow up on each of them, but the seeds exist.
  3. It gives me a sense of community. I find groups of people very challenging because of my odd fluctuations of energy–I’m always waiting for people to write me off as they find out more about me or hang out with me long enough to get a feeling for the inconsistencies in the way I present myself. My bipolar disorder and the depressive phases come with it can make me feel “other” more often than not–yet, with all that, going to readings helps me affirm my identity as part of a creative community. It lets me see poets of all ages and backgrounds and realize that no idiosyncrasies have the power to un-poet us.
  4. It changes the way I write and revise poems. When I expect to be reading a new poem out loud, I end up paying more attention to its sound and rhythm. It’s important not to get carried away by this; the way the poem looks on the page is still just as important. However, thinking about sound adds a layer to the process of refining a draft.
  5. It re-connects me with the part of myself responsible for poetry. Daily stresses make it easy to lose touch with this, but after a good reading I feel stronger and more centered. Toxic people, the news, pervasive fears–all of these have lost some of their power when faced with the power of creative thought and the love that drives it.

How to Go to a Poetry Reading

If you are anything like I was, you might be very intimidated by the idea of one of these events. Maybe you don’t know what to expect, or maybe you expect the atmosphere to be uncomfortable. Maybe you think it will be a roomful of snooty intellectuals who will dismiss you as not hip enough, not educated enough, not artsy enough…not something enough.

Maybe the idea of actually reading your poetry to an audience of strangers feels so exposing that you cringe at the thought. Why not just pass around the contents of your underwear drawer, or strip naked and do a Charleston at the microphone?

As someone who started going less than two years ago, I’d encourage you to go to one. It’ll open up new aspects of your writing. Here are some tips that might help:

  1. Get there early. Find out where it is and allow plenty of time to get lost, find parking, etc. The reason to get there early is that many of these places are on the small side and you want to get a seat close enough to hear clearly.
  2. Introduce yourself to people and admit you are new to this event.
  3. If anyone asks whether you’re a poet, you say YES.
  4. Bring your poetry, even if you don’t think you want to read this time. Bring at least several different pieces, because what you want to read might change depending on what you have heard. There is often a break during which you can sign up if you didn’t before.
  5. Allow yourself to notice that you don’t adore every poem that is read at the open mic, or even every poem read by a featured poet. Notice how subjective it all is.
  6. If you choose to read, respect the time limits.
  7. Don’t forget to silence your phone.

I predict you’ll find yourself hearing some poems you don’t think are all that great; poems that make you think “Hey, I brought poems I think are better that that. Or certainly no worse.” Whether on that day or a subsequent occasion, you’ll step up to that mic and read something. After it’s over, you’ll see that no one snorted in derision. No tomatoes were thrown. You did it, and the world did not come to an end.

Porn for Poets

If the main purpose of porn is to inspire and facilitate fantasy, the poetry equivalent for me would have to be ads for workshops and retreats. Magazines such as Poets & Writers contain multiple listings that render me dreamy-eyed and wistful, imagining myself scribbling away under a linden tree on a remote estate or perched, bright-eyed, on a chair as a teaching poet reads my work.

Some workshops are priced lower than others, but aside from the rare scholarship offers   they are all out of my reach.  Alas, just as in porn, sometimes you get what you pay for. On the other hand, there do exist some good, free online resources and opportunities for writers–certainly a cut above the internet’s jungle of free porn options.

It’s important for me to be aware of these and understand that when I feel isolated as a poet, it isn’t because I lack money. Sure, workshops are fantastic, exciting, sexy. I’m getting excited right now just thinking about a couple of notices I read this month. However, a poet can form ties and get criticism in other ways. My most important barriers are emotional and psychological, not financial. My level of connection and my development as a poet are my responsibility. “But I had no disposable income,” is not a suitable epitaph to rest above a grave filled with unwritten truths.

I’m Broke, but Here’s a Poem

I want to contribute, and sometimes what I have to offer seems meager. I recently started taking a tai chi class with a group of people who regularly support some charitable causes, and there are usually various solicitations going on. They’re good causes, but I cringe internally at every speech because I am barely scraping together the basic fee for the class I am taking there.

After a recent workshop, I was inspired to write a poem dealing with the subject. It occurred to me that I could send the poem to the visiting teacher who gave the workshop; that he might enjoy it. It might please him to know that his teaching provoked such thought, or he might like it in and of itself.

Sometimes it seems like a lovely idea. Sometimes it seems lame.

I think I am going to do it, though, because sending it clearly fits in with one of my basic values: the idea that I should present myself to the world as I am, offering what I have to offer, and let others decide whether they want it.

Laureate

Last night I went to a reading by California’s current Poet Laureate, Dana Giola. It was interesting to hear from someone who has had such a long and varied career–he’s a former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, with an MBA and a PhD in literature. He has taught and promoted poetry education all over the state for years.

The contrast between seeing his poetry-as-my-career persona and the more intimate experience of hearing his poetry was fascinating. He, like many poets, writes of love, grief, communion with nature, and all of his human experiences. However polished and goal-oriented he may be in his endeavors, when it comes to his poems he is naked. And thank the gods for it–how else could I feel connected to him and keep any feelings of envy and inadequacy to a minimum?

Because (and this will be no shock to those who have read any of my writing) I do have these feelings. A career such as his is not achievable for me unless I invent a time machine and manage to get started writing well before my late forties. I must focus on what I can do in the time I have, and I must keep my eye on that which makes me want to write whether it leads anywhere or not.

Shapeshifting

What form does the piece of creative writing you’re incubating want to take?

I’m beginning to understand why so many poetry exercises want you to tear apart a poem and experiment with writing it in different forms.

I already knew that changing the voice of a poem can be a powerful tool–if it feels awkward in the first person, try third or second, etc. I already knew that trying out a specific form like a pantoum or sonnet can be a fun way to experiment with one.

What’s really making me see it, however, is comparing works of mine that deal with the same idea or image in prose versus poetry. As I go through old essays, some of them cry out to be used in a poem. At least one of them already has been.

I realize that when an idea or image is potent enough for me, it could give birth to several pieces, each in a different form, each powerful in a unique way.

Knowing this helps me feel more cheerful about revision…the old saying that “a poem is never done” brings a sense of hope and mystery rather than paralysis.

An Honest Poet

As I approach my first experience of featuring at a reading, I need to remember the importance of honesty. To be an honest poet is to present myself and my poems in a way that reflects who I really am as a poet, not what I think my audience might admire the most.

I’ve noticed that I am nervous about my reading taking place the Monday after the presidential inauguration. Emotions may be running high, and it is not unlikely that the open mic will reflect this. My insecurity tells me that I should try to generate some work that would address current events.

I worry that people won’t want to hear a bunch of work that has nothing to do with any of the topics so present in our minds and hearts right now. But that’s not for me to decide: I think being asked to feature means being asked to let people see a broader picture of my work. Presenting a hurried and forced set of work, out of fear or out of a desire to be accepted, would be dishonest. Holding back my most authentic works out of fear that they’ll be seen as self-indulgent would also be dishonest.