“A poem ain’t a poem until it’s been read out loud.”
I can’t find the source for that quote, and am likely paraphrasing, but I associate it with Bob Holman and vaguely remember hearing it on The United States of Poetry CD, which he produced back in the 90s under his Mouth Almighty label. Verbatim or not, I wholeheartedly agree with its spirit.
While many book publishers and academy types might argue otherwise, poetry has always been an oral form, first and foremost. A poem on the page is theoretical, incomplete; like a promising idea not yet vetted.
Reading your work out loud is also one of the best forms of editing, and not just for poetry, but straight fiction and non-fiction, too. I even make a point of reading my blog posts out loud at least one time before hitting publish, to minimize obvious typos and flights of hyperbole.
Back in Spring 2010, right after I attended my first SXSW, I slipped down to San Antonio to do a gig at Lupe’s Art Blend, hosted by an old friend from the NYC poetry scene, Vincent Toro. It was my first featured reading in a couplafew years and I was quite a bit rusty, but I loved the setup with the open stage and single chair, the attentive and appreciative audience, and I eventually warmed up and gave a pretty solid performance.
It also served as a test run for the manuscript I’d been toying around with for a while that ultimately became Handmade Memories, the echapbook of poetry and essays I self-published this past April and have done a horrible job of marketing beyond having its cover here on the site up in the sidebar.
See what I just did there?
A handful of the poems in Handmade Memories were written long after I left the poetry scene behind, and had only been read aloud in public a couple of times at most, but the majority had been battle-tested in open mics, slams and features, with subtle edits revealing themselves with each performance. Most examples were specific words I’d written that when I read the poem aloud I’d unconsciously change to something more fluid; other examples were entire stanzas that would get cut for pacing or clarity.
A few months ago, I started curating and co-hosting a new reading series, “What Had Happened Was…,” with my friend and fellow writer (and photographer, and publisher, and agent provocateur) Syreeta McFadden. The focus is on storytelling, and while my intent was to move away from poetry, I was quickly reminded that my favorite poems are typically narratives. Not prose poems, per se, but poems that tell an engaging story, from whatever perspective, making people nod in recognition or think about something in a different way.
If your writing doesn’t evoke a response of some kind, you haven’t made a connection, and that’s never more apparent than when you’re on stage and the feedback is immediate. At a reading, silence isn’t golden, it’s often a blaring alarm that something’s going wrong!
Each month at “What Had Happened Was…” (every 1st Wednesday @ 116 MacDougal), I’ve read one of my poems and given a bit of director’s commentary on the backstory, but I’m hoping to eventually use it to test out some new work, reading from an actual story I want to go back to, polish off and finish.
Our next show is Wednesday, August 3rd, with two great featured guests, Ernio Hernandez and Mara Jebsen, and it will also be the kickoff of my two-week long birthday celebration! There’s no cover, 2-for-1 drinks, and a small but engaged audience of smart, creative storytellers. If you’re in NYC, please do attend! (And if you’re not a local, you can catch the livestream online.)
Oops, I did it again! 😉