Here’s one challenging thing about poetry readings: You have to pick something to read. Usually you have about two minutes at the mic. That’s enough to read one poem or perhaps two or three short ones. You don’t get to lay out your entire body of work like a huge tapestry to be admired.
Tomorrow there’s going to be a poetry reading at the gallery show that’s featuring pieces done on one of my poems. I am supposed to read that piece and one (repeat: one) other poem.
This is a special reading, and I want to do it justice. I’m working on a draft of something I think is appropriate, but if it is not done to my satisfaction by tomorrow which poem will I choose instead?
It feels like speed dating, or like a job interview with only one question. No piece could give a stranger a full sense of who I am as a poet. This is why doing a feature was so much fun, but it may be a long time before I get to do another one of those.
I have to accept that I can’t convey all I want to convey on any given occasion. I can only leave the impression of the pieces I am able to read.
Actually, that’s not the only impression I can leave. My presence leaves an impression: my voice, my expressions, and my body language speak to a discerning eye of who I am.
Pretty frequently, my daughter reminds me that the untouched tea, or coffee, or snack near me is doing me no good sitting there.
By the same token, getting my writing seen and appreciated by more people is a lot more likely if I actually send it out. Submitting pieces might not lead to them being accepted by a certain publication…but not submitting them definitely won’t. Reading at an open mic might not help me get new connections and meet people who like what I have to say…but not reading definitely won’t.
Recently, I sent out a couple of different pieces in response to submission calls I had heard about. Just local things, but I was very excited when one was accepted. I would like to get into a more regular habit of submitting work. I have everything I need to do it; I just need to acquire some discipline and get into a rhythm.
It helps when I have a clear notion of why I want to submit work to publications; what I want to get out of the process. I suppose what I want most is to be more open to possibilities. Also (and this part is important) I enjoy a childlike pleasure in having something out there because it means there’s always the possibility of a nice surprise coming.
They can be stressful sometimes, but some of my poems owe their very existence to the presence of a specific commitment about when and how a certain poem will be communicated to another person.
A blessed deadline helped me break out of my winter slump recently. It was an especially useful deadline because it is an event being held at an art gallery and I had agreed to write two poems about two paintings. It wasn’t like submitting to a magazine…miss your deadline and they just don’t consider you. Missing this deadline would have meant flaking out on something that was specifically expected from me and creating a blank slot in the program.
So I got the two poems done. I got them done in time to send them off. I had to finish a version of them even if they felt stupid or awkward or forced. In doing so, I was reminded that finishing a poem is satisfying even if doesn’t seem like my best poem ever. I was also reminded that sometimes a poem can grow on me.
It will be interesting to see what the artists think of my contribution, but I have gained something from the process no matter what happens.
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’ve been trying outfit after outfit on my newest poem in progress, and nothing works.
Advice essays by poets for poets often advocate experimenting with different poetic forms. Though free verse is incredibly popular, and is often a go-to, using a form can take a draft in new directions. I haven’t done it very much–tried to do a pantoum with one draft, but usually blank verse is as close as I come to a form.
However, my current project has me so stuck I am desperate. So I tried doing it as a ghazal. (Basically, that’s a series of couplets that all end with the same word.) Then I tried doing a set of tanka (a five-line Japanese form with a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern.) No dice.
Experience with forms is something I’ll get more of if or when I manage to take some actual poetry classes. For now, I suppose I’ll try a couple more forms–then, perhaps, give up and put the draft aside for now. There are other fish in the somewhat murky sea of my imagination.
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.
Not because I hate the holidays (even though I do.) It’s because I am being a miser with my poetry lately.
Last post, I talked about how I’ve been asked to do my first feature. At the poetry readings since then, I’ve had trouble choosing what to read at the open mic. I don’t want to read my “best” stuff, or my newest stuff, or the stuff that feels most personal…you get the idea. I want to save the good stuff to read at the event, which is in late January.
Understandable, but I shouldn’t get too fanatic about this for two reasons. One, there aren’t going to be a huge number of people there, and something I read at an open mic will be heard by many who won’t attend this event. Two, and more importantly, I need to stop worrying that a member of the audience at an open mic has heard my poem before. It is OK for a poet to read the same thing more than once.
All of these feelings are part of my desire to show people who I am as a poet. I don’t want to waste any opportunity to speak to someone, and that’s a good way to feel. However, I do my best work when I am not approaching things with an attitude of scarcity.