Sunday, March 13, 2016

Ask the Moon: Open-mic crickets that follow us home to our desk

Pamela doesn’t like how her more serious work is received when she reads at an open-mic event—something she likes to do because such events teach her something about how her poems are received. Here’s what she has to say about it:

My best work needs to be read more than once. And I find that when I’m not careful, I drift over into favoring the more accessible stuff—especially the funny stuff—because it gets acclaim. I brood about and despair of being not taken seriously because of the very vocal response to my lighter poems.

While this is largely an issue involving what I read at open mics, my anxiety spills over into my perceptions of my work overall, in any sort of medium or venue.

At my “home” reading series, which has a diverse but serious attendance (they’re not fools), I’ve read poems that I know are excellent that have been met with a response as if I’ve just farted and no one wants to mention it.

I’d like to know how I can learn to be truer to my muse and still enjoy open-mic events without getting resentful or insecure (any more so than your average artist).

There is just something about open-mic events. I’ve always been a very ordinary-looking person, and if I’m being honest, the years have not been especially gentle, but when I read my poems aloud, I always feel like the sexiest woman in the room. People who would not have spared me a glance BP (before hearing my poetry) have sidled up to me and bought me drinks AP (after poetry). It’s the power of the pen.

Reading work aloud and absolutely killing it—that’s an incomparable feeling. But Pamela is right. Those poems with complex rhetoric and quieter appeal don’t go over so well with audiences. Audiences like funny stuff. They sometimes like racy stuff. They like bold images and interesting turns of phrase.

Other things audiences like are repetition, rhyme, rhythm—those sonic considerations that can make a poem a little obvious and sing-songy on the page, but make it sing from a podium.

Performance is one thing. Poetry is another. Performance poetry is yet another, aligned more closely with the former than the latter. Performance poetry is composed so that it can be delivered live, not presented, flat, on a page. A performance poet’s inflection matters; her expressions matter; her tone matters. None of these considerations are even present when the poem is encountered on the page, unless the reader has an extremely lively imagination.

I don’t think Pamela should concern herself too much with those quiet poems that go flat on the stage, and she certainly shouldn’t let doubts about her poems’ reception affect her composition process when she is alone at her desk. Instead, she should treat open-mic readings as performances, and she should read the work she knows audiences will love. She should let them laugh, and let them hear her music. She’ll have them in the palm of her hand.

Those quiet poems that require time and consideration to take in aren’t ideal for the stage, and asking a live audience to process them is probably a mistake. I know that when I’m sitting in an audience and listening to poetry, I often get snagged on a word or image and ride it out for a bit before snapping back to the poem. In a particularly intricate poem, I may never get back in—I may never get it. That moment I enjoyed may be the whole benefit I’ll derive from a poem.

When we hear a live performance, the person at the mic is not the only performer in the room. Sitting quietly, receptively, and politely is a performance of its own (something that came home to me recently when my kiddo lost his shit, second-row center, in a packed magic show, and I had to drag him out, screaming about Skittles at the top of his lungs—“TASTE THE RAINBOW!!!!”). I’ve gone to readings by writers I adore, yet I’ve found myself suspiciously eyeing his or her sheath of papers halfway through as I wondered how much longer the thing would go on.

And poems are dense—it’s what makes them poems. Extraneous words are cut out. Many phrases have a double edge. Images communicate more than the words that comprise them ever could on their own. It’s exhausting, frankly, to listen to every word. So we enjoy things that give us the relief of a laugh; we like funny characters or personas; we like sounds that excite the senses.

What we like on a page varies from reader to reader, but we typically don’t expect to be entertained there in quite the same way. We’ll work for a poem that we can take at our own pace and return to.

Open mics are special. If we play our cards right, we might end up with umbrella-bedecked booze in our hand, offered by an admirer. If we picked just the right poems, ones that reward listeners without demanding too much from them, we might feel sparkly and beautiful.

In all writing, audience is everything. If we put ourselves in their position, whether curled up with our words at home or sitting in a folding chair in some coffee shop or gallery, we’ll have a better chance of knowing how to reach them and exactly what kind of work they’re poised to receive.