RE: AWP Conference 2011

When a poet has a microphone in front of his mouth, his objectives are always essentially the same (even if he is a female poet): he must wrestle the attention of the audience from whatever else its members have been paying attention to, deliver his poetry in a manner that will ensure the audience's continued attention, and leave the audience pleased that he has been speaking once his turn at the microphone is over.  A performer's labors are made all the more difficult in a room full of drunkards, particularly if those drunkards are diligent writers constantly honing their mastery of language by engaging in contests of wit with their diligent drunkard neighbors.  These challenges are presented to every poet, but the way that a poet addresses them is wholly a matter of preference.

To engage the audience, one may simply begin speaking.  If there is an introducer, the introducer's speech is cut off at the head by the chatter of a drunken audience.  If a poet has no introducer and simply begins to read, his first poem will have its head lopped off.  More commonly, a poet will introduce himself so that only a modest introduction will be lost to crowd noise.  This effort to minimalize “loss” calls attention to what might be the most generally important dictum of the performance of verse: a poet must not forfeit his speech to the noise of a room.  I do not mean to suggest that a noisy room is hungrier than a silent room for unheeded verse cast haplessly into the air, but I want to acknowledge that a silent room can be just as noisy as one filled with drinks and off-color jokes.  A room is full of noise when its occupants spend their attention on something other than the poem being heard, and it is generally necessary for a poet to speak in such a way that his audience will pay attention.  Poetry, then, is not normal speech; it can be, and “normal speech” is afforded space under the grand umbrella that is “poetic speech,” but for speech to be “poetic” it is generally beneficial for it to be “different.”

The oral poet of antiquity rhymed his verse so that he could remember his lines, but his audience remembered his work as well.  Modern writers rhyme less often, but certainly intend to command as much attention as their forbears.  Whether he is introduced by another, introduces himself, or forgoes introduction entirely, a poet must continue to command attention even after the room has been made aware that there is a poet and that he must be attended to.  In lieu of the meter and rhyme that might exalt his versification above the barroom chatter, (in many cases, also the work of writers,) the modern poet employs a variety of methods.  He might read more slowly and enunciate more particularly.  If he is slipping, it might behoove him to look intently at the least receptive audience member every now and then.  A poet might talk about sex, and ratchet up the intensity of his speech with a particularly steamy line.  It is possible to get through a reading with one's nose to the page on the podium and relatively unaffected speech if the poet is very good, but this is risky.  It is much safer to pause between each poem and talk about alcohol, one's spouse, or something that has been in the news.  Failing all else, a poet might command the attention of his audience by saying really cool things, like “Keg Room pizza,” or “John Lennon sunglasses!”

Whatever other tools the poet has at his disposal, a reading is doomed without the good will of its audience.  It is reassuring, then, that this is something that an audience usually has plenty of.  An audience will generally shut up and listen when it knows that it's supposed to.  An audience applauds at the end, and in the middle whenever a particularly brilliant turn of phrase is offered by the reader.  Good will is something that extends beyond the confines of the barroom reading: when it is over, the poets will buy each other drinks and Ethiopian food.  Eventually, sobering poets will ask for directions to the subway, and receive them even from the gruffest looking citizens of the roughest part of town.


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