Thursday, March 10, 2016

Finding an audience is necessary to completing the work

So that was an interesting experience.

I just called my hometown arts agency, and I mentioned that I would like to have a poetry reading there in the fall. I’m lining up readings here and there around the country—have book, will travel!—and I really just thought my family, and particularly my mom, might get a kick out of having me read in the town I grew up in, and where some of my family still live.

Readings are clearly not part of the primary mission of this arts organization, which focuses, I think, on normal art—paintbrush art—rather than the literary stuff. I spoke to the organization’s secretary, and it quickly became clear that she thought I was trying to reserve space.

“No, you misunderstand,” I told her. “I don’t want to rent space; I’m a practicing artist from your city, and I want you to host an hour-long event for me.”

There was a long pause as that registered, followed by the verdict that I really should talk to the director.

The woman I spoke to wondered who would come to a thing like that—could I get an audience? I offered a few more very cogent arguments, including, “I’m not a crazy lady,” and “I have a legitimate book coming out on, like, a real press,” and “In the creative writing world, I’m not, like, super-famous, but I’d wager that a lot of people know who I am.”

I clarified. “I mean, I’m not Stephen King or anything.”

“Very few people are,” she replied.

I couldn’t deny the logic there. Still, I was no closer to setting up an event than when I started. Guess it’s true—you can never go home again. And sometimes you wonder if it’s even worth it to try.

I’m thinking these days about the difficulty of marketing a book—especially a poetry book, since the reading public is generally pretty ambivalent about the genre.

But there are also people out there who want to read poetry—who are dying to read it, and who may be changed by it. Poetry can be vitally important. There are poems in my life that have hit me at just the right time and stayed with me forever, as an artifact of a moment, or as a boost of encouragement that’s always in me, or as a simple sign that I’m not alone.

I feel as though it would be a mistake not to try to find the people who are waiting for just the right words, because there’s a ghost of a chance I’ve written them.

It can be discouraging, calling around to set up readings or, down the road, trying to set up bookstore consignments. A lot of people don’t understand what contemporary poetry even is, and sometimes we may, in fact, be the only serious practitioners of our art form that some folks have ever talked to.

In doing this sort of work, I remind myself frequently of some lessons from the world of fundraising, an area where I have some experience. When we call or write to solicit funds, we are not begging or bothering people. We are offering a chance to involve people in our organization.

Likewise, in promoting our art—the stuff we’ve spent countless long hours on, nearly every day of our lives—we are giving people a chance to be moved or changed by it, and we are doing right by ourselves, completing the cycle of creation by finding an audience.

Here’s a depressing fact: In the very town where I’m trying to set up a reading, I had an abusive boyfriend—a guy who badgered me on the phone day and night, and who instilled in me a lifelong dislike of communicating that way. When it became the norm to text instead of talk, I rejoiced. I’m a writer, not a talker. I’m not adept at saying things, but I do a pretty good job with keyboard or pen.

But hearing my voice may improve the potential for a connection, and the person on the other end of the line may have a slightly harder time saying “no” to a real, live person with feelings than she would trashing an e-mail or throwing a letter in the can.

So I’ll make my calls. I owe it to my art, and I owe it to the reader out there—maybe only one—who doesn’t know I’ve written her favorite poem.

Would you like me to read you some poems? Put me out of my misery and write to me at, and we’ll set something up. As I’m actively promoting a book, I’ll happily work for help with travel expenses and a sample of the local cuisine. C’mon, Hawaii—mama wants some poi.


  1. How sad that your hometown's art agency wasn't supportive of your offer. Here in Reno, we are fortunate to have support for local writers and poets. Nevada Humanities sponsors poetry readings and the University of Nevada Reno frequently hosts readings by visiting writers and poets. We have the incomparable Sundance Books, our indie bookstore, which hosts readings by locals and visitors alike. Best of luck with your poetry.

    1. You are richly blessed! Sounds like a great community. I honestly think I just caught these folks flat-footed. I do think it may be time to move on to the library, though! Ha!

  2. Great post. You know, communities also have writer's guilds or alliances, which could be another resource (although you know your hometown better than I would.) Where I live, there is a writer's alliance, which I just joined (although I am generally not a group person) - b/c they have a monthly newsletter which allows members to promote their work & activities. Membership was cheap. Might be worth exploring whether such a membership in a similar group might afford some additional access & promotional opportunities...? Just a thought...I also dropped a little money in my town's only indie bookstore when I finally talked myself into walking in there to suss out if they might consider selling my upcoming chapbook. I knew it was a long shot; I'm in a university town with well-known poets who've published plenty of book-books & I have a chapbook. So I meandered at first, bought a few cards and a gift for a friend and then asked to see the poetry section...they sell new and used books and I picked up a few I wanted. Then I started a convo with the person who was obviously a manager & next thing I know I've given her a business card & secured a promise that they would take the book if I'd bring it by when it's out. What a journey you are on, though! Best of luck & I can't wait to read your book when it's out.

    1. Building relationships does seem like a good way to go! I'm going to take your suggestion to heart. :)