Last Friday night, I participated in the Open Mic Poetry Night for poetrySpark, part of the SPARKcon festivities that invaded downtown Raleigh last weekend. I hadn’t done anything of the sort in 13 years. From the time I applied to read to the moment I got up there, I was pretty fucking terrified. Stage fright aside, the fear was that I would completely suck, that my poetry would be bad and I would read it poorly.
So the video is not the best quality, but it’s pretty good considering it was shot with a phone in a dimly lit, loud bar. That dull roar of voices you hear? That’s the bar crowd. Yeah, they were loving the poetry. I think I did all right. And it was fun. I forgot how much I actually like performing. Because, yeah, the person reading is less me and more a character. I think that’s the only way my severely introverted personality can do something like that. One thing I should have done that did not do was plug Communication when I was done. I had at least another full minute left in which to do that. Ah well.
I don’t want to sound arrogant or anything, but I think my poems were probably the best of the evening. Most of it was banal. Some of it was ridiculous drivel. The dude who read after me started off by making weird breathing sounds into the mic. Sorry, dude, that’s not poetry. The Poetry Posse (friends Matt, Julie, Rebekah and Kurtis and hubby Paul) and I left the bar after I was done. That was some bad poetry we heard. We needed to save ourselves from further pain.
First off, I have issues with the venue. Why have any kind of reading in a bar? Unless you’re going to shut out the regular bar crowd, it won’t work. You need a bookstore, coffee shop, swanky wine bar or somewhere the poets won’t be in competition with a large, loud, drunk crowd. The sound system was okay; they do have musical acts there, so I can’t say they’re not set up for shows of some sort. I did, however, appreciate very much the fact that I was able to down two Southern Comfort and Cokes before I went on.
Second, if you have no idea what poetry is, don’t write it and for fuck’s sake don’t read it in public. Poetry is different things to different people, but there are some standards. If you must angst and bleed and woe-is-you, fucking make it interesting, okay. Ditch the cliches. Cliches suck. Poetry is enough of a cliche all on its own. Don’t make it worse. Likewise, if you must rhyme or do formal poetry, make it interesting. Poems are tiny stories. Every moment, emotion or observation that stands out to you can be a poem. Do not, please, read a poem called “What a Poem Is” and feed me line after line of bleeding words and angsty wondering.
Third, what does it take to be a poet? Well, technical understanding of poetry is key, thus, just like with any kind of writing, read lots of it. Don’t worry too much about learning the names of different meters or forms, unless of course you want to or plan on using them in your own poetry. Rhythm doesn’t need technical terms to exist, though. I’ve learned those technical things, but it was in high school. I’ve forgotten them all. But read. Read lots, read different stuff, explore. But all of that is nothing unless you observe. Above all, a poet is a keen observer of the world and the people in it. When you watch someone cross the street, you should be able to pick out things that make that person interesting to observe, to you if to no one else. Manner of dress, gait, expression. What stands out? That’s what you write about.
Poetry should be tight. Not necessarily short but compact. As full of whatever you want as you can without reverting to prose.
Poetry isn’t special. It doesn’t need to be special. It is every day.
Listen to music. I find rap especially interesting for its poetry, but even instrumental pieces have a certain poetry to them.
These are only my opinions, of course, but the three key pieces are universal: read, write, observe; not necessarily in that order. Do those things and do them well, and I promise you rich, lovely poems.