If you’re the type of person who goes to poetry readings, you know that the bad ones are inevitable. Maybe the poet is drunk. Maybe she has serious poet voice (more on that below).
I find bad readings a good time to write rude haikus. But they also give my editor brain something to chew on. What exactly makes the poet suck so badly? Is her language uninteresting? Do I know better than he does where to end the poem? Are her beginnings boring?
Poets need to think like fiction writers a little more. They need to have interesting language but they also need to tell a good story—not a linear fiction-type story, but a buried-narrative poetic story. Like all writers, poets run out of things to write about. A common habit is to start writing about some hobby like gardening. Now I like flowers just as much as the next person. But when the poet writes only detailed description of phlox I might as well read a field guide. There is no emotional weight. As one of my professors used to say “what are the stakes?” And he didn’t mean garden stakes. If you’re writing about phlox, make me care about the phlox.
No wonder poetry readings get a bad rep. Have you ever heard poet voice? Poet voice, for the uninitiated, is the single worst thing about poetry readings. Some poets read so slowly that audiences can check their email messages or catch up on their sleep between each line. You can’t read a poem the way you read an academic paper, which, by the way, no one does. Ask my girl Emily, poetry is about ripping your head open. All poets should listen to Patricia Smith and read their poems like they mean something.
The upside of the bad poetry reading I went to is that the second poet was really really good. And my poetry buddy and I got to rail about the bad poet the whole ride home and feel superior. And if that won’t cheer you write up, you probably shouldn’t be reading my blog.