Susan Schultz has a really good blog post on readings, a poetics of audience. Here are some excellent questions she presents:

But, having just returned from doing readings in Vancouver and Boise, my question to myself is: what does the writer want from his or her audience? Is there a poetics of audience? How could such a poetics bring the poet and her audience closer? How can we measure such intangibles as engagement, as warmth (or coolth), as exchange? What does the poet stand to gain from giving readings, aside from a modest honorarium and a cv reference? Why go out there and read? And to whom? What purposes are served beyond poetry itself?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot myself, given this recent rush of events I’ve been doing. I’ve been fortunate to have read to a lot of students lately. Indeed, for my TAYO magazine sponsored reading at USC earlier this month, both students and fellow authors had excellent questions, both cultural and process-wise. For my City Lights Books reading with Camille Dungy, the place was packed. Some of Camille’s SFSU students were there. devorah major brought her (I think) CCA students, and Heather Woodward of SF School of the Arts’ Creative Writing Program, an arts high school where I will be a writer in residence in January 2011, brought her students. Afterward, I had some good, informal and enthusiastic conversations about students from diverse cultural backgrounds writing poems from their creation mythologies.

What I would like to do more is to dialogue with audiences. I like questions, and conversation with writers and non-writers alike. Too often, readings are set up as one-way flow/performances, that acute focus on the front and center podium at which we’re accustomed to standing, rather than publicized as a dialogue. For PAWA readings, I invite and book readers, draw up the e-fliers, and always forget to present (in publicity materials and to the writers) the idea of having a dialogue, such that introducing to the audience the opportunity to ask has the potential to be awkward. So yes, I’m guilty of perpetuating the one-way flow, as oversight, and also because I (wrongly) assume that more writers want to be Writers in formal reading/presentation spaces.

My own preference as an author is this; I like talking directly to audiences and not at them or above them. I generally want to know who is sitting in the room, why they are there, given there are so many other places to be. In other words, what do they need from me? As Susan writes, oftentimes, audience members’ questions are self-centered or selfish, meaning the questions for other writers come out of questions they have for themselves, whether writerly, or personal, political, cultural. And this is a good thing. I like that my work, and the issues I struggle with in my work, content and craft-wise, can serve to inform others in various ways, poetically and practically. As well, and this is more selfish motivation, I appreciate the opportunity to refine how I represent my work. I told yesterday evening’s audience at Moe’s that Craig’s visit to my class, his talk on Pacific and indigenous poetries has clarified more for me how to talk to audiences and readers about Diwata’s non-linear, spiral/spiderweb narrative structure.

I should also say that while yesterday’s audience was small, from where I was standing, folks’ facial and vocal responses were very much appreciated feedback. Finally, reading with Javier Huerta made me so chill, very comfortable, and allowed me some chatty and still professional informality on the mic. I have events this coming 11/01 Monday at UC Berkeley, and 11/02 Tuesday at Mills College. I look forward to the opportunities to dialogue.

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3 thoughts on “On Reading: A Poetics of Audience

  • October 29, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    I read Susan Schultz’s blogpost that you linked to, and it sent me in several directions, as does your post here too.

    Having read poems to people in a range of settings, from the (more or less) formal lecture-type podium setting you talk about here, to sitting in a circle taking turns, with various amounts of ambient noise and silence — I tend to prefer the more formal end of the spectrum, with ambient silence (or quiet) rather than noise, generally speaking.

    In part this is surely related to the aethetics I mostly gravitate toward — I tend to write poems, and tend to read poems (though not at all exclusively) that work well surrounded by a measure of silence and space.

    I’ve found, as I’m reading to an “audience,” — a word that needs more exploration that I’m capable of here in this comment in the comment box at the moment — that under the right conditions, the silence in the room as I’m reading will start responding, I’ll begin to get a sense of how people are responding to the poems, whether the poems are taking hold in people or not, by the particular character or texture of the silence or quiet in the room. It’s almost a palpable thing, something like an echo or reverberation though not as simple as that.

    I relate this, sometimes, to the notion (which I associate with some of the concepts of Zen, among other things, though I don’t pretend to an in-depth knowledge) that silence and emptiness are not empty.

    I can deal with doing readings surrounded by levels of chaos and ambient noise also, though I often feel that I’m swimming against the current when I do this. In such settings, as I get it, it becomes a matter of connection with listeners by way of the surrounding noise, rather than by way of surrounding silence. Something that in my experience requires greater large-muscle effort (as though on a basketball court), whereas reading in ambient quiet requires more fine-muscle action. (Two of my relatives were watchmakers.)

    Thanks for posting this.

  • November 1, 2010 at 8:51 am

    Hi Lyle, thanks for this comment. I definitely (re)present my work better when I can nuance my telling/speaking, so for me, the loosening of the super formal reading does not equal bustling and noise, as much as it is just to even out the dynamics of the room. I like it when audiences are listening and responding to the work, and I enjoy the live reading space and opportunity to connect with audiences. It’s when there’s no hope of interaction, when the audience/author relationship is so sterile and distant, with the author on the elevated pedestal talking into the ether that I am questioning.

    At the Fall for the Book Festival, my co-reader, J. Michael Martinez and I told the moderator that we’d happily do a Q&A afterward, and the moderator was a little surprised by this.

  • November 2, 2010 at 9:41 am

    Terrific post, Barbara, especially since there are three readings in the next six days here in Columbia, Missouri.

    I like talking to the writer after the reading and having a conversation, not necessarily about any one particular thing, but more of an artist-to-artist feel: what are you reading, what are you working on, stuff like that. I’m not sure how that could be pulled off in front of a 100 people, but it might make readings more engaging for everyone.


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