No, it never ever has to be a boring reading, but I swear there are so many people, memories of school days in their heads, who cringe at the idea of listening to a poetry reading. As a reaction to that we have Spoken Word movements and poetry slams (I’ll post one or two of my favorites tomorrow). Although all of that might sound a little too much like street rap to the traditional ear, they have done great work at rescuing poetry from people’s memory of flat, dull readings.
My son, Micah, and I went to a poetry reading recently at a local university, known for its excellent creative writer’s program. The featured poet was an award-winning legend. She wasn’t young. If she ever had a robust voice, age had stolen that from her. But in the interest of the old building’s acoustics, the organizers decided not to give her a microphone.
Enormous, irreparable mistake. The old benches of this building, which must have once served as a university chapel, were like old wooden church pews, so as we leaned forward in a futile effort to hear the esteemed poet’s words, the entire bench creaked and groaned. Poor Micah, I turned to him with what must have been an incredulous look on my face and he could not stifle the giggles. That, of course, made everyone turn and stare at us. They were struggling to hear as much as we were, and were relieved that they could blame someone else, rather than the poet who seemed uninterested in looking up, or even trying to project her voice, despite the obviously dire circumstances.
I suspect our creaking and giggling also made it easier for the director of the MFA program and his staff to ignore my helpful suggestions later. You see, even the MFA students who read after had problems projecting. Less than half of them seemed able to or interested in presenting their work in an a way that the audience could hear, understand, and thereby take joy in. As for the director, I suppose it was easier for him to pretend that his students really didn’t need any instruction on public speaking. I say all of this because I made the mistake of trying to make a helpful suggestion or two later. Oops.
This now has me wondering; if you have taken an MFA course in poetry or creative writing, could you drop your thoughts into the comment box below? I know this sounds snide, but honestly it was a theft of our evening. Would an art exhibit set up a show in which the paintings, photographs, or statues were so far away from the viewers that nobody could appreciate their beauty? Do writing programs teach anything about presenting work in public? And if not, why do they bother doing it? Might they consider that by not spending at least a little time on the subject of public presentation, that they are actually doing harm to the public perception of their own chosen art as a whole?
Yes, I’m a bit passionately opinionated on this subject. We should not whisper or mumble our poems, (unless somehow—I’m really stretching my imagination and graciousness here, doing so would help to get the message across). Nobody goes to a concert or a play so that they can fail to hear the music or the actors’ dialogue. This public presentation is fun stuff, but it’s also a serious responsibility, to you, your art, and your listeners.
As I have said in previous posts about poetry as a culturally relevant art form, even traditional verse can be read in a way that is delightful to the modern ear. Mathew MacFayden and The King Blues are good examples of people who know how to do it. Groups like Poetry Out Loud work to spread that spark to the younger generation. The work of Ken Nordine and Billy Collins attest to what video websites have done to present poetry in a contemporary context, capturing the fun of the art, and dispelling the fears of potential boredom.
I was telling a friend about some video readings, particularly one of a poem by Philip Larkin called “This Be the Verse,” that could be found on YouTube. And while I wish these folks would make some newer videos, the five that can be found on the I Blame Poetry channel are absolutely first class productions. I am envious. Here they are as I posted them back in December of 2010.