So, after three Saturdays of poetry events in a row, I thought I’d share a few insights that may be common knowledge to you; but if they’re not, I hope they’re helpful.
- Open-mics are tough. Envy the slam poet and performance poet for their ease at standing up there, doing their thing. The trade-off is that they spend however many hours carefully crafting pieces meant to be said aloud, memorizing the lines, and practicing the delivery so that it’s perfect; also, very few poems of this ilk publish well in print. But it can be agony to read, re-read, and re-re-read a piece meant to be read on the page, trying to tweak it for live performance. And you can’t judge it from the audience reaction: they will always applaud, at least. I suppose if you get whoops and a standing ovation, that might be something. But just be proud that you managed to mold a piece effectively from one medium to another.
- There is a strong older woman contingent at poetry events. This was articulated directly yesterday by two women I heard having a conversation, and they were right; on the other hand, I disagree with the disparaging things they were saying about “young people”. (And considering I was sitting next to them, I think “tactless” is a pretty good adjective.) I don’t have a problem with this contingent, but if you find a particular gravitational anomaly affecting the themes in your work and voice, consider you might be subconsciously working in this audience group. (And depending on your definition of “older woman” – for me, there’s a fair bit of leeway – I defy anyone who is baffled by their presence in poetry to hear Patricia Smith read.)
- You may feel unaccountably inspired just by going to these things. On the surface, only the first event I went to this month had a writing exercise/workshop for an hour, with Peter Murphy; there were two open mics, but the rest of the time was taken up by panels. But you hear opinions, thoughts, snippets of famous poems, names to look up, beautiful metaphors from poets’ lives, and most of all, the poets’ voices that give them undeniable humanity. It’s easy to be intimidated by our idols, but when you see that their hands can shake and they can not have good answers to questions, it keeps you striving. If we are dirt, then a day at a poetry event is the dark, spreading mud: be patient, and the pure spring water will begin to appear.
- This is my opinion on taking notes: wait until after the talk. It depends on your memory capacity, but I find it rude to scribble notes all throughout a talk that’s not a professor’s lecture. Dorianne Laux’s event at the Dodge was entitled “a Conversation”; yesterday, the poets asked for the house lights to be brought up so they could see the audience’s faces. Of course you don’t want to miss any gems that are tossed out during a panel, but barring the occasional Really Good Scribble, I suspect they like to see people’s reactions, expressions, etc., not heads bowed over a notebook. There will always be downtime at the end to review and summarize, and the memory will still be fresh. (Unless you’re one of those people that rushes up at the end to monopolize the poet’s time and demand autographs.)
- Take a chance on poets you don’t know. Beyond the registration fees for an event, save a little bit of cash for the inevitable book table, where you can skim the selections and purchase something by an author you don’t have in your collection. Occasionally, a panel speaker will really resonate with you: go and buy their book! I had never read Natasha Trethewey before last Saturday, and now I can’t get enough of her. This is how you grow and change in your own work, by tasting and digesting bits of other people’s. And certainly, you ought to support the poets you love and admire, but not only them. They have, in turn, inspired other poets, whose work it’s good to get to know as well.
- I should have had Twitter this whole time. So, that will probably happen. But I swear to all that’s holy, I am only going to use it for poetry, and I am not going to link tweets I follow to my phone. Last thing I need is my phone pinging every five minutes with someone else’s inane thoughts: I have enough of my own.
And a poem to follow, once I think of a title for it. Cheers!