Poetry Reading

Sunrise over Luxor, Egypt

Sunrise over Luxor, Egypt

Hot air balloons over the Valley of the Kings

Hot air balloons over the Valley of the Kings

I am doing a poetry reading for ten minutes on Sunday March 3rd along with five other poets.  I have been preoccupied with which poems to read, writing a new one to fit the theme, “What’s Cooking?” and now I am practicing reading:  slowly, breathe, articulate.

I attended as many of the six previous readings as I could and I made a few observations.

First, print the poems in large enough font so you can read them without squinting or stopping to find reading glasses.

Second, don’t read poems you wrote ten years ago, even if they are good.  I don’t know why but it seems lame to read something old, as though you’ve written nothing since.

Third, pick out the poems in advance.  Don’t stand there flipping through a chapbook, muttering, “Oh, this one is good…or I could read this one about when I was in chemo or that one I wrote when dad died…”

And finally:  a journal entry is not a poem.  It appears that many people write about life changing events, especially death or illness, love and loss.  Of course, those are great sources of feeling.  But to simply spill feelings and never look at the piece again is not writing poetry.  Well, not good poetry.

I recall an entry in the Best American Poetry of 2011in which the poet’s biography indicated that she had written a great deal about a painful divorce prior to being admitted to a MFA program.  Her professor insisted she use form to write poems.  He said what she wrote was a puddle and form would help her contain and express her feelings.  She did as instructed and wrote beautiful sonnets about her experiences.

After listening to a lot of poems, I started a list of Don’t Write This topics for poetry:  poems about the poet’s health or the health of loved ones or their deaths or suicides; poems about divorce; poems about politics, environment or religion; didactic poems; poems about things the poet has done, like take a trip somewhere.

However, I realize these life changing events are actually grist for a good poem.  It’s just that the words put down on paper must be an actual poem and not just a rant or a spilling of the guts.  It is unlikely the poet is the first person to experience these kinds of events.  The trick is for the poet to express the feelings in a fresh way that helps the listener or reader understand or resolve the pain, rather than wallow in it.

I also made a list of things to write about that are perhaps not life changing events, but would make a good topic for a poem:  music, literature, art, cosmology, science, foreign places, ordinary people, animals, spirituality, friendship, love, history, trains, horses, cars, hope, legends, myths, nature, food, language.

Well, perhaps this is more about me than any other poet.  I avoid writing about the life changing events of my life because it always comes out as drivel.  Here’s to the poets who can write good poems about bad events.


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