Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve gone to a lot of arts events: a live paint, the poignant destruction of unsold art, two pops concerts in which my daughter performed, Record Store Day that included live music, two poetry readings.
One of those poetry readings was given by poetry icon Gary Snyder. The other one was given by me.
Not that there’s any comparison. And I am glad that I saw Gary Snyder after I gave my own reading or I may not have read. I would have been too busy thinking that I’ll never be that beloved, never be at that level of literary skill, never be that comfortable in front of a room full of people who are there to listen to me.
Oh, the ways I can completely derail myself.
But I’m here to tell you that there’s nothing like reading your own work to an audience to shake up how you see what you’ve done. In my case, the reading was a private affair at a friend’s house. This meant I knew everyone in the audience. Before the reading began, I thought about how I would rather read to a bunch of people I didn’t know. I sure as hell didn’t want my friends and family to think poorly of what I did as a writer or have them discover that I’m not at all the person they thought I was. What if they decided they really didn’t ever want to hear or read anything of mine again once this reading was over? What if I embarrassed my kids or my partner? Or the person who hosted the evening?
Naturally, the only remedy was to have a bit of Irish whiskey and plunge into the reading anyway.
The good news is that no one fell asleep. No one wretched. They all actively listened, asked questions, said nice things. My kids are still speaking to me. I got some feedback that helps me figure out what’s ready to submit and what needs to simmer longer. I deliberately chose to read only one thing that had been published and eight pieces that were new or newly revised.
And I would do it again. It’s way more interesting than sitting alone in my office, staring at the latest version of a poem that I’ve revised sixteen times, and it’s more rewarding than feedback from an online forum. I got to look people in the eye.
Now, fast-forward a couple of days to the Gary Snyder reading, which took place at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis in front of at least a thousand people. The atmosphere inside the church was crackly with expectation, an amazing thing for a poetry reading. Snyder, who has been writing for more than fifty years, was at ease as he read poems both old and new, told stories, encouraged people to be more thoughtful in their relationship with this shared planet (perfect since Earth Day is nigh), and generally enchanted the audience. He spoke for close to an hour and a half, and people listened.
That’s what happens after a lifetime of following one’s art: people really want to hear the voice behind that art. A reading shifts from being the place to try out new things to the place to celebrate what you’ve accomplished.
And the artist and audience still get to look each other in the eye.
So, while there’s still some of National Poetry Month left, back away from your computer. Go read your work to someone. Then find a reading to attend.
Do it right now.