Do You Read?

"There are really only two kinds of readers-aloud of poetry — the first prompts a collective slumping and hanging of the head in the lap, which sometimes indicates thoughtfulness and which sometimes indicates sleep; the second refuses to lose the eye contact with the audience."

~from "Poets Read Compellingly, Even At Lenght," The Oberlin Review

I was reading this article from The Oberlin Review, which prompted me to think about all of the poetry and literature readings I've attended. The good ones and the bad ones. These days they seem less like community gatherings and more like Barnes & Noble book-selling events. Not to mention spoken word events, which can be really fun or all performance and no substance.

Also, I have been thinking about my performance as a poetry reader. Personally, I'm rusty; I haven't read in public in more than three years. But public speaking scares the bejesus out of me, so I tend not to be conversational with the audience. I look down at the podium, looking up toward the end, while trying to focus on the crowd and not on any one person--exactly the opposite of what a reader is supposed to do.

Now that I think about it, I probably give off that "I'm only doing this because I have to" vibe. Again, this is why I don't read in public.

So I ask you as a lover of literature, tell me about some of your experiences going to a reading or giving a reading. You don't have to name names (unless you want to!). What makes a reading memorable for you? Do you like Q&A sessions? Do you like a mix of old and new works? What do dislike about the readings?


jim said…
What I like about readings is that often they inspire me to go home and write. I know it was a good reading when I can't even wait until I'm home, I find myself writing poems in my head. I tend to prefer readings when I'm familiar with the poems -- and often find it difficult to follow when I'm not.

I actually love to do readings myself. I'm a naturally shy person -- and I get nervous until I get up in front of the crowd (if ten or 15 people can be considered a crowd) -- but once I'm up there, I feel in control and love it. That feeling kind of extends to my work too -- I'm a children's librarian, so I do lots of things in front of big groups of kids. I never feel nervous in front of kids. But adults are a different story.

The best readints I've been to -- many years ago, I went to a reading by Stanley Plumly -- what was incredible about the reading was that Plumly would just be talking about something, telling a little story as way of introducing the poem, and then before I would even realize it, he would be lines into the actual poem.

I also went to a reading by Robert Bly that was pretty incredible -- he took off his shoes and wore masks and played instruments and had interactions with audience members (actually a shouting match with one guy, but all in character) -- he would stop reading a poem and say that he really liked a certain line and then read it again.

But my favorite readings were by Larry Levis -- mostly because I like his poetry so much. Larry had an incredible voice and was quiet and full of humor. I can still hear his voice now, although it's actually been about 20 years since I heard hm read.
Bug said…
One of my favorite things about readings is when the authors talk about themselves, where the story came from, and things that I couldn't learn by reading the book at home on my own. I hate when they don't introduce the work in some meaningful way. And, of course, good presence, which is something I sorely lack as a public speaker.
January said…
Bug, do you read your work in public?
January said…
Good point, Jim! Sometimes I actually write during a reading, otherwise I'll forget my thought. But that's a credit to the reader--inspiring me in the moment.

I wish I could have heard Levis read; I imagine that he had a big, booming voice. Bly has an ease about him, and doesn't care if he stops and starts in the middle of things.

I like to hear Lucille Clifton read because there's so much history behind her words. And Phil Levine is an excellent reader--he'll discuss the context in which a poem has been written.
jim said…
Actually, Levis didn't have a big booming voice...not really.

I've never heard Levine read -- but one of my prize possessions is a letter from him. Short, but still prized.
twitches said…
I'm a teacher, so I banter a lot, which works fine.

My favorite performance was from a friend of mine, who was so nervous (unknown to the audience) that she was shaking terribly, and on the spur of the moment decided to sit down on top of the loudspeaker to continue her reading. It was such an interesting, unique little quirk that it made her reading all the more interesting; everyone thought it was done with attitude in mind, when really she was just trying to cover up her trembling hands!
Dana said…
Hmmm. I don't really care how the word is read as long as it's good work. And I don't like Q&A sessions because people tend to ask a lot of lame questions.
chiefbiscuit said…
Hi - I did a reading just a week ago. It went well. Before ia reading I always hate the thought and starting a few days before the event, groan inwardly at the prospect. But once there the adrenalin kicks in and I usually have fun. Sometimes I can be really nervous and my breathing doesn't go well, the energy level seems flat and the spoken words don't seem to fly.
Other times i am more relaxed and can pick up the energy from the listening audience and engage with it.
But the frustrating thing is, I can never tell beforehand which one it's going to be - a nervous reading that doesn't quite pick up or roll, or a good, strong one where I fire.
It's an elusive and puzzling thing.
bostonerin said…
Like Bug, I also enjoy it when a reader shares a bit of inspiration or personal history that relates to the piece. I also like to hear writers talk about process when they read.

I read at school last week, and did a before/after reading where I showed how a section of my novel developed from a short story. It encouraged the audience to ask a lot of specific questions, which was great fun!

Poetmom...there's a note about readings just for you on my blog. Open mic night in Natick is calling you!
January said…
Erin, I'll read if you read!

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