Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Why Your Poetry Fails - Part V

     What marks us as Pixel, Page or Stage poets is not that we excel at  poetry production, promotion or performance, respectively, but that we suck at the other two.  Otherwise, we could think of ourselves as "poets", sans qualification.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #46
     Even if we had the best forehand in tennis, would we expect to win Wimbleton without a backhand?

     That overspecialization, in a nutshell, is why your poetry fails.  And trust me, I know nutshells!

     Put another way, during their travels, ancient Greek sophists¹ would be exposed to various philosophies and approaches.  If we want an edge on our competition we need to become more sophisticated.

     Some will tell you to "be teachable".  Good advice, but you need to be far more proactive than that.  One can be a great poet without a degree, without a passionate personality and, believe it or not, without a lot of imagination².  There is one trait that all worthwhile writers share, though.  My exhortation amounts to this: 

     Be curious.

     It is downright tautological to say that, regardless of what poetry world you hail from, you will never become a well-rounded poet without absorbing lessons from the other two.  Indeed, perhaps I should say:

     Be bi-curious.

      While I'm stating the patently obvious:  our impressions of those other poetry worlds are probably negative but we need to put our preconceptions aside and learn what we can from them.  As an example, let me start with the hardest sell:

     You must perform your poems.  In public.

      Someday I'll list the top 10 reasons why this is so but, for now, I'll cooncentrate on those that pertain to impressing an author or writing contest judge.  In truth, there are dozens of good reasons to perform and only one reason not to:  you're shy.  So am I.  Nevertheless, shyness isn't a reason.  It's an excuse.

     "Why do I need to perform my work for a writing contest?" you ask.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #13
     Because the adjudicators will.  If they are even remotely competent, judges and editors will read the poems aloud to themselves, to each other, or, ideally, have someone read the entries to them.  They need to hear the sounds.  The only way you might discern how this will go is to read/perform them for a test audience and guage the reaction.  Since you will need to be looking the bastards in the eye to see their physical response, we eliminate the "read" option;  you must memorize and perform your work onstage.  With practice you will see which parts of your poems aren't working, just as you will be able to distinguish obligatory/polite from enthusiastic applause.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #67
     Poetry is, essentially, memorable writing.  If your pieces are difficult to memorize you might need to revise them or submit different material.  Judges and editors usually take weeks to make their decisions.  If they can't remember lines, images and metaphors of your work as they revisit it you will not prevail.

     Bottom line:  If it comes down to a choice between your poems and those of someone who can please a live audience you will lose every time.  On the other hand, capturing an audience just once will change your view of every line of poetry you read or write for the rest of your life.


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #19
    If you spend every moment in fear of cats, birds of prey and nasty kids with slingshots or air rifles you'll understand why there are no extroverted squirrels.  Not for long, at least. 

    Are there things we can do to alleviate the effects of shyness and help us succeed onstage?  Aren't there a lot of successful introverted actors and television personalities?  Indeed, there are.  All introverts share a single trait:  they don't like expressing their personal off-the-cuff opinions in front of people.  Actors have a script and a persona, such that it really isn't them or their views we are seeing.  This explains why some actors can do Shakespeare but not a simple interview.  Thus, we have our first dictum for bashful performers:

1.  Know your script.

    Carry your poem around with you.  You might even wear one of the wrist pads that NFL QBs use.  Every moment alone is a chance to practice.  Turn your damned television off--at least until Game of Thrones is on.  It's not enough to be familiar with your work;  you need to be comfortable with it.  You need to know your work so well that you could recite it in a coma.  Practice, practice, practice.  Ditto your performance.  Use mirrors, video cameras and any family member who doesn't escape fast enough when you need a test audience.

2.  Just the facts, ma'am.

Rachel Maddow
    Compare the gregarious Ed Shultz to his fellow MSNBC commentator, the incomparable Rachel Maddow.  Ed operates on a few basic factoids and builds his TV talk show conversation around them.  The painfully shy self-professed nerd, Rachel Maddow, provides fact after fact--more than the rest of her network, with Fox thrown in for good measure.  Then she looks at us.  If the storyline is too convoluted, she'll begin her next sentence with "In other words..."  For the most part, though, she leaves the watchers to draw their own conclusions, albeit with considerable help from Ms. Maddow's data selection.

     Avoid rants and diary entries.  Find an interesting narrative and stick with it.

3.  Choose a cozy open mic.     

     Save slams for later.

4.  Go alone or with someone who has seen you at your worst.

     This may seem odd, but friends can raise your anxiety level.

5a.  Sign up for a spot just before the break (if any).

     This gives you time to study everyone's body language before you go on and before people leave at half-time (rude, but it happens).  Find audience members whose mannerisms, movements and facial expressions are easy to read.  (Roughly:  leaning forward and smiling, good;  leaning back and snoring, bad.)  Focus on these people during your preformance.

5b.  Check out the talent.

     As per Sturgeon's Revelation, 90% of the performers there will be awful.  Draw some comfort from the fact that, no matter how badly things go, you won't be much worse than the average participant.  No, really.

6.  Poetry means never having to say you're sorry.

     Skip the introductions, explications or annotations.

7.  Adjust your poem's length to fit.

     There is a set amount of time (3 minutes?) allotted to you.  Plan to use about 80% of it.  You don't want to feel hurried.

8.  Don't eat beforehand.  Bring antacids.

      Nervous stomachs can be an unwanted complication.

     How do you know you've done well when everyone is going to clap and thank you for coming?  Aside from interpreting their body language, you hope that people will refer to your performance when they express their desire to see you again.  The ultimate compliment--which is extremely rare--would involve having an attendee ask to see the text of your poem.

     At a future date I hope to discuss what Pixel and Stage poets can learn about promotion from the PoBiz.


¹ - For what it's worth, Americans are not the first to believe that teachers shouldn't be paid well.

² - Hold that thought.  This will be the subject of a subsequent post.

Series Links:

  1. Why Your Poetry Fails - Part I - Diaeresis

  2. Why Your Poetry Fails - Part II - Brackets

  3. Why Your Poetry Fails - Part III - Judges and Editors

  4. Why Your Poetry Fails - Part IV - Comparisons and Repetition

  5. Why Your Poetry Fails - Part V - Performing

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