Yo, check it one for Charlie Hustle, two for Steady Rock

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Continuing the (Mis) Education

Thanks to the comments (Props to Craig & Guy) and talking it out loud with Barb, I can see that while Ms Hill can have her final say, she is still not acknowledging that she broke a basic contract – unspoken as it is – with her fan base which is “As an artist I have every right to expand and seek a broader different fan base but that doesn’t give me the right to bait-n-switch my loyal audience.”

The issue of contract, spoken and unspoken, is a theme I go back to often in my head. When we pick up a poetry book, what is it that we expect from the writer? When we attend a reading, what is it that we want from the reader?

I know some people can live without readings. They got no problem just picking up the book and letting the words take them places. I’m not one of those people. The experience of having the poem read aloud brings it back to a place of storytelling for me and I love that. I also look for other little things that add some pacing and tone to the poems that is not easily transferred to the page alone. (Not that we shouldn’t strive to put that texture into our poems.)

As for the book, I love being able to examine a poem or line a dozen times over to see what is making it so alive. I am also a fan of reading other folks stuff out loud in big spaces to see what the words and phrases sound like when they echo off walls.

Yeah, I ask for a lot from poetry but I try to give a lil back to keep the equation balanced. (Can ya tell I’m an algebra head?)

– Poems. Not monologues, not a history of how you & the curator are friends from back when Moses was a baby, not rants, not a laundry list and not a list of personal gripes. Straight up: I’m asking for a command of language with a sense of story (you gotta be sayin sumthin).
– No Disclaimers. If you have reservations or need to over explain your poem
(Example: If you have to say this next poem is about a purple rooster who can tap dance to the collected essays of Carl Jung and its called “A Purple Rooster Tap Dances to the Words of Jung.”) then work it out somewhere else.
– Intros/Banter. Not necessary but if there is a good short story about the poem (which doesn’t give away the whole poem- see above) then I am down to hear it. Banter is cool when it lets the audience in, when it doesn’t it is called Talking At People and I really don’t need it.
– Clear Speaking Voice. I don’t need every poem to sing, or to be dramatized. I just need it to be relayed so that I can hear everything. If there is a mic present I say use it. If you are someone who gets riled up when you read- step away from the mic. Please.
– Tone. I might be contradicting myself here on the dramatization tip but if you have a poem that is riding on some kind of emotional current then please follow it.
– Cover poem. Not essential but I sure appreciate it.
– New work. Again, not an absolute essential but I sure like hearing poems develop over time.
– Body Language. I love it when a poem is so charged a poet has to move to it. Hands keeping time, feet tapping to an internal metronome, facial expressions responding to surprises in the text. It is a real wonder to experience this kind of poem. On the flip side, a flurry of knee jerk body convulsions masking shallow writing is whack. Ditto with body movements that mimic precisely what you are saying.
– Respect the clock. Twenty minutes seems to be the median attention span of most poetry audiences. This is subject to change per poet but another good rule is Always Leave Em Wanting More.
– Inspiration. Make me say, “Damn, I wish I wrote that.”

– Poems. My concept of this is broadening as I read different work so my only real marker is that I have to feel that the writer is taking me down a set road, destination may be unknown to reader, but I have to feel that the writer has at least some idea what that destination is.
– Voice. If I can cover the by-line of the poems and still know the writer, that is an impressive distinct voice (Martín Espada and Ai come to mind.) If I cover the by-line and don’t know who the writer is, then we are on a path of discovery. If I cover the by-line and think it’s someone else’s poem that could be a problem.
Reality Check Time: I am seriously struggling with the above issue in my current work so Pot meet Kettle.
– Narrative. What can I say, I love a good story and it is the bomb when I can find one in poetry. This is not a hard and fast rule as much as it’s a preference.
– Commitment. If the book says we are going to the depths of hell and back, then do it. No detours, please.
– Form not formula. I don’t mind seeing the poems stick to a game plan but I don’t want to feel that the poems are on a predicable path.
– Inspiration. Make me say, “Damn, I wish I wrote that.”

Uhhmm, can ya tell how many live events I’ve experienced versus how many books I’ve critically analyzed? ;-)

No worries, I’m reading more all the time and this post alone speaks to how I am developing a personal rubric of poetic excellence. I could still use some help so if anyone has anything to add or subtract, feel free.

Join the Conversation


  1. You said “rubric.”

    What I don’t need: a poem that is really the poet working out his/her therapy session on our time. Not interested.

    What I don’t need: poems that sprawl while simultaneously proselytizing (yeah, that’s a fancy work for “ranting”), in the language of fancy political abstract-concept terminology.

    What I don’t need: more cliche poems about, “what my student taught me when I thought I was the one teaching them.”

    My 2 cents :-)

  2. agreed on the first two. to me it all goes back to “hey, i’m here for a poem. gimme one.”

    as for the student/teacher poem, i recently heard a great piece of fiction that started with a struggling inner-city student being pissed off at his teacher’s condescending tone. now that’s the poem i want to hear/read!

  3. You never respect the clock so why should anyone take your advice on what you want?

  4. good question. the truth is no one has to take my advice on poetry readings/books. but i do know what i like and i think it’s better to share that in an open forum than just change the rules from reading to reading, book to book.

    the more dialogue – the better.

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