AUDIENCE (Courtesy of Merriam-Webster)
1: the act or state of hearing
2 a: a formal hearing or interview [an audience with the pope]
b: an opportunity of being heard [I would succeed if I were once given audience]
3 a: a group of listeners or spectators
b: a reading, viewing, or listening public
4: a group of ardent admirers or devotees : following
I am digging this definition because it places a primary emphasis on getting your voice heard, and then when one has achieved that state of being heard, either by searching or creating a venue, then this leads right into the second phase of the definition.
But now how exactly is the poem heard? In a perfect world, the poet would be seeking both an oral venue to be heard and a print venue to be read. But that would be a perfect world. The real world is chock full of people who have been writing for a while and have never envisioned reading their work to others for any number of personal reasons. On the flip side, this non-perfect world is also full of people that think the only power of the poem is in the immediate act of communication, that there is little to no worth in having the poem published. Both these mentalities create divisiveness in poetry that shouldn’t exist but somehow still does.
Basically what I am saying is this, a poem read on an open mic has every potential to be as good as a poem in a print journal, a poem read at the National Poetry Slam can be just as crappy as a poem published in Best American Poetry, the venues where these poems are presented shouldn’t have anything to do with the merit of the poems themselves. But they do and why is that? Audience.
But not the audience in definitions #1, 2 or 3 but hops all the way forward to the audience in definition #4. Once we go out and seek a specific audience, thing change. Specific audience means specific criteria and that means the chance for a poem to succeed on its own merit diminishes.
I still stand behind the advice I put out in my last post. The audience wants you to succeed. Nobody shows up to an event to have his or her expectations shattered. Now the only x-factor is: Who is that audience?
Is it the audience from definition #1? What is that audiences natural state of hearing? If there natural state of hearing is that they want to be wowed, they are seeking that next great poem, they want another exciting poem in their lives; then you have nowhere to go but up. From your title to your last line all you can do is try to build, build, build and have them leave satisfied.
However, if the audience’s natural state of hearing is that they are looking to tear the poem apart from get go, they believe only a very few precious poems exist in the world, they want to add to their personal slush pile of poor verse; then you are pretty much doomed.
The reality of poetry is somewhere in the middle and since there is no perfect world and hence no perfect middle, I am always going to advise folks to lean toward the audience that wants you to succeed. Anything else will lead you down to over compensating in other areas that have very little to do with poetry.
So now let’s talk about definition 3, the audience you will probably find at most venues. The advantage of this audience is that they will most likely come with little prejudice against you, if anything they are already heaping you with praise because the curator has hyped up your reading to the fullest (probably from the bio the reader has already supplied) or they are reading you in a respected publication that generally doesn’t let them down. This audience is great to just read/have the work read and then wait for a reaction. Most of the time, you wont get a reaction. If the audiences expectations are met, they will just keep on going and seek the next poet.
I don’t know about y’all, but audiences like this bum me out because they don’t give me any kind of critical feedback. They don’t let me know what worked or what didn’t work in the poem(s). If I’m lucky they might tell me what they liked but usually don’t/can’t tell me why they liked it. In the print world, this is akin to the standard rejection/acceptance letter. And so it goes. You go to a middle of the road audience and you get a middle of the road reaction.
So back we go to definition #4, the devotees. The opinionated ones. If you are lucky, they will tell you your poems are good and why. If you are really lucky, they will tell you your poems are in need of help, and point you to where you can get that help.
This is the reason I hit an open mic in the first place, to find an audience that was willing to help me succeed, but I knew success wasn’t going to be a happy road full of smiles and thumbs up which is what my family and friends (Bless em all) where giving me.
I was fortunate enough to find that kind of tough love audience at Bar13. A place where all the definitions of live oral venue audience existed. There was just enough casual listeners, emerging poets and seasoned veterans waiting to hear the next good poem and that was just enough to encourage me to keep coming back but also knowing that I had to keep working hard to keep their attention and expectations for a good poem filled.