Dear Shameless Hussy,
Recently I read along with a spoken word poet. Someone wrote a blog entry on the event and praised the spoken word poet for performing her work, for having eye contact with the audience etc. and criticized the others for reading from a printed page.
This is clearly a stance of performance poets and it often represents a dividing line. I was wondering if you had thoughts about poetry when read aloud to an audience. Is the poet’s job to make the work more performative and to engage with the audience?

Signed Concerned in Ottawa

Dear Concerned in Ottawa,
The line between performance poets and other poets wavers depending on the professionalism of the poets involved. A “page poet” can be an amazing reader of his or her poetry and offer a more authentic, moving and/or entertaining reading than a performance poet or a spoken word poet. The Hussy has noted that some spoken word poets seem to have a metronome stuck in their throat. Others over augment. Ev/ry. Syl/a/bull/. Ev/ry. Word. Ris/ing. Up! Ris/ing! Up! At the end of the line–when they

drop

down

and ellipsis….

For emphasis.

Not always so subtle.

The Hussy’s trusty confidant would like to add several other irritating reading mannerisms noted of late:

  • The jeune femme who keeps her head down and affects an adolescent flat affect, barely able to mouth the wee syllables of her abstract interventions.
  • The spread-legged urinal-stance of the young man, who reads as if delivering a freshman paper on the evils (it’s true!) of apartheid and/or twee langpoetry.
  • The dissective discursions of the overly prefatory, those who bulimically reveal the where/when/how and whosis of each inscribing before letting the vowels drop like mouthed caramels…

The latter rampant: if you speak your entire poem, using all of the words in the poem, before reading the poem, and then read the poem, you will note a not-so-subtle ripple of unease in your audience.

But yes, back to your question. Memorizing a poem is a very good idea. I recommend it highly. But it won’t necessarily make you a better reader of your work. Nor will enunciating. Or only enunciating, in any case. It doesn’t matter how much a reader attempts to infuse feeling and/or meaning into a piece of writing: if it isn’t there it isn’t there.

In short, Dear Concerned, it’s the poet’s job to first write good verse, and second present his or her poetry in the best way possible, articulating the potential, whatever aesthetic quality the poetry–your poetry–embodies. Whether you choose to be sincere, aloof, Socratic, tempestuous, dramatic, undramatic, dry, impatient, jejeune, and so on, is up to you. There is no one way to read. Each of us must find our own way.

But find your way you must. That is to say, yes, yes, yes, one must give thought to how one presents one’s work. Always.

Yours,
Shameless