Thursday, August 02, 2007

Self-Presentation II: Literary Readings

Here's another set of decorum questions I'd like to put out there. Say you're attending an open mike at a coffee house, like I am tonight. And you want to read a poem. Putting aside all circumstances that vary--i.e. any guidelines that the director may have concerning "maximum mike time," the number of people in line to read, etc.--what is the longest time one should be up there? And if the piece requires an introduction, how long can the introduction be?

Third, and most interesting, question: I've found that some of my poems are better read aloud than read on paper, and vice versa. When at an open mike, should I present something that's funny and likely to be crowd-pleasing (even if it's somewhat shallow), or something that's more intellectually substantial but might be hard to get--i.e. unless the audience has a copy of the poem in their hands, it's likely that all the symbolism and metaphors will wash over their heads.

When I presented this question to my writing group, the unanimous agreement was to go for the crowd-pleaser... or, as one person said, "You can do the other thing if you like, but know what it is you're doing," i.e. don't be surprised if the audience blinks at you like sheep.

Comments and/or illustrative anecdotes from my fellow bloggers would be much appreciated.


Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

Interesting on your question #3...I agree with the crowd-pleaser consensus, if half-heartedly. While attending poetry classes at Berkeley a few years back I saw a joint reading with Anne Tardos and Jackson Mac Low. It was obvious both from the line-up order and the introductory speeches that Mac Low was the "main attraction," and the bigger poet. But his readings were mostly delivered monotone, and his style -- dense diction flitting from one dissonant image to the next with the occasional cribbed line from H.D. -- hardly worked in an aural format (dare I say I actually found him...tedious). In contrast, Tardos (who "opened" the show) read an extended word-association piece with playful rhymes ("Dim Sum"/"Homer Simpson") that brought the house down. After reading both of their works since I think Mac Low is (was) clearly the more important writer, but for that evening Tardos held the floor, and admittedly my memories ever since.

Unknown said...

But who's a better poet, Tardos or the other guy? I mean that's cheap. That's really cheap. Dim Sum/Simpson. Hardy har har. I say present yourself authentically. If you're a fun poet, then clown it up. If you're a happy-sad kinda gal, fine, mix it up. But don't eff it up by trying to be the crowd pleaser if your best stuff is all grim and reapy. If the "glove"* doesn't fit, you must f'hget-about-it.

*by which I mean poetry delivery style/mood/attitude, I suppose. sigh.

noah m. said...

i think a lot of readers forget that a reading is a performance... or some have a hard time accepting the fact. that doesn't mean you should automatically go for the easy crowd-pleaser. if you think you can read the more difficult poem/story in a way that can hold an audience's attention (even if they don't totally get it), go for it.

if you're an inexperienced reader, though, or struggle with reading, go with the crowd-pleaser. i think it's better to be remembered as "good reader, fun poem/story" than "sleep inducing" or, worse yet, "who?"

practice... i mean, why not? stand in front of a mirror and see which comes off better.

oh, and to the length question... be breif with your intros (unless it's part of your schtick -- you know, a 2 minute intro for a 2 line poem). and for total length, just ask -- find the moderator (or venue manager) and see what they recommend.

good luck! wish i could be there to hear.

Meredith Ramirez said...

i think this all dependent on context... open mikes tend to be pretty slammy in my experience, as opposed to more formal poetry readings. in that case, i would pick poems that perform well even if they're less "difficult" than other poems, just because your audience doesn't have the luxury of sitting with the text in front of them. as for length... five minutes maybe? if you've gone before, you probably have a good sense of how much time is acceptable.

jaywalke said...

I spent 15 years as a professional stage actor before starting to write, and I have to admit that for me most readings are complete snooze-fests regardless of the subject matter. It's a performance and requires preparation. Readers should practice, first with a mirror then with a test audience, and should know how long their piece will take before they reach the podium. Moderation of pacing, breathing, pitch and volume are all things to play with, first in rehearsal to set a baseline but adjusted on the fly depending upon the reaction of the live audience.

The technical aspects take work, but even more important is a willingness to take a risk. If nothing is at stake in a performance, the audience will pick up on it. Take a chance! Read something that moves you, and then don't fight it. Be spectacularly good or crash-and-burn, but please, please, don't be safe. Safe is boring. I'd rather stay home and read it myself.

Here endeth the sermon. Please open your hymnals to page 42. :-]

Lincoln Michel said...

To be entirely frank, my mind tends to wander in a reading, especially if it is at a bar and even if I love the author reading. I think that it is best to go with something short and crowd pleasing (ie funny, quirky or what not).

OTOH, it is much easier to follow poems than fiction, so you have more room to maneuver here.

noah m. said...

funny, lincoln... i agree. my mind wanders too, unless the reader is a great "performer," but i really struggle with poetry -- even "good" poetry. stories often hold my attention more.

and i write almost exclusively fiction... so i guess that says something.

noah m. said...

oh... and this post and comments bring up a question (especially after reading jaywalke's great comment): is "how to read" ever covered in the cirriculum of an MFA. seems like it would be a great skill to master if you're interested in exposing your work.

Josette said...

I concur with jaywalke's comment. Approach the reading as a "performance" and rehearse accordingly. I did a solo reading at Purdue right before I left, and I focused a lot more on rehearsing than I did on the reading order of my work. And it paid off.

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