Performance Swagger

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Boundless Tales Reading Series at The Astoria Bookshop. The lineup featured three very accomplished guests, poets whose work had been featured in top journals like Tin House and Ploughshares, and one poet whose work had been published in ONE journal—a journal that wasn’t Tin House or Ploughshares, or any literary magazine of comparable esteem.

The poet who came out of nowhere blew me away. His work was impressive. Even though his poetry was not nearly as polished as that of the other poets at the reading, his charisma won me over. I was impressed by the other three poets. Their work was legitimately stellar. They deserve to be published in literary journals of the utmost quality. Their sets were not devoid of personality either. However, as an equalizer, the unheralded poet brought us completely into his world—a world of drunken poetic rants written on bar napkins.

The point is that regardless of how accomplished you are or how subjectively good your work is when you give a reading or are at an open mic, you’d better knock the audience out. A bit after the reading, your audience will not remember the specifics of your work. They won’t remember all of the journals that have published your writing. They won’t remember your credentials. They will remember your presence.

Writing is a solitary effort. However, getting known as a writer can often involve the deepest interpersonal skills.

As discussed in previous posts, my decision to take poetry seriously was largely spurred on by my friend Russell Jaffe. In the excitement, I made a rookie mistake of focusing on the aspect of performance. I imagined a grand spectacle—reciting poetry in a drunken slur, cigarette hanging from my mouth in imitation of Anne Sexton or Chuck Bukowski. The greater task—writing good poetry—seemed to be outside of my mind.

Russell set me straight. While showmanship is important, it must be fused with content. You already are working to improve your writing. Now the next time you’re reading your work in public set out to leave an impression.

What have been your experiences with giving readings? I’d love to hear from you!

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