Is Poetry Really A Conversation?
What poets get wrong about performing.
This month’s newsletter is a little longer because I had a lot of thoughts and didn’t wait until the last minute to write it! (Where is my gold star?)
Anyway, lately, I’ve been considering what makes poetry entertaining and I’ve been shifting some things in my writing practice based on those thoughts. More on that in the next section.
I spent 2022 hammering out new shit because I set a goal of reading a new poem at every open mic I attended this year. I did it. (I am covered in gold stars.)
In January, I’m taking some time off from writing new things to focus on refining what I have and to give myself rest. I was listening to Hanif Abdurraqib on a podcast the other day. He discussed living as an act of writing and considering what kind of life you’re building outside of just writing all the time.
So this month, I’m trying to focus on living. I always have a hard time writing in January anyway and rest is important. I do have some projects I’m already working towards for this year though.
If you want to stay in the loop about my upcoming work, subscribing to this newsletter is a great idea:
To be blunt: poets these days don’t seem to care about being entertaining.
And I get it, I was an English major, after all. Poetry is about Truth and Wisdom and yada yada yada. Academia has done a great disservice to poetry as a genre by making it feel inaccessible and elite and well, quite frankly, a little (a lot) snooty. There’s a reason that the most successful slam poets are from marginalized identities, even if they too went on to be academic poets.
Say what you want to about Poetry Slam and the whole institution that it was, but at least it meant that you had to give a fuck about what other people thought of your poetry when it was performed. And if the audience (the judges) didn’t like it? You hadn’t done your job.
Let’s step back for a second. To be fair: slam tends to inspire a particular type of poem. You can hear it in the cadence (“Poet Voice”) and the subject matter (Trauma). But slam poetry isn’t the only type of performance poetry. Don’t forget where poetry comes from.
Consider ancient poetry. It had a story to tell. It had people to entertain. Poetry can be about Truth and Wisdom and still be fun to watch, right?
I think poets, especially young and/or newer poets, but honestly, all poets, get caught up in the interiority of the work too often. (Myself included.) There must always be a balance between what this poem is doing for me and what this poem does for the audience. (Oh, we love an opportunity for nuance.)
I got into an argument with a friend last year. They wanted to say poetry doesn’t have to give a fuck about the reader/audience and I said that makes no fucking sense (I’m colorfully paraphrasing).
What’s the point of putting your poem into the world if you don’t care about how people respond to it? If you want people to come to your show? If you want people to read your book?
You’ve got to care about the audience. Now, that doesn’t mean writing only what your audience wants to hear. Write what you want to write. But understand the audience is watching. Figure out how to strike the balance.
There is a place for poems that are just for you. It’s not the stage. That doesn’t mean they don’t have value. Don’t misrepresent what I’m saying. Which is this: if you put a poem on stage (or page) you wanted an audience to see it: why? and How do you know they got anything out of it?
We love to say poetry is a conversation but in reality, it’s often just meant we want the audience’s validation. A silent audience is a baseline and normal at a poetry mic, noise is a plus. If the crowd is silent at a comedy show? You’ve failed. (Ps. There are more thoughts about poetry and comedy in my blog this month.)
There’s nothing wrong with wanting or getting validation. But it’s also not a conversation if I’m only allowed to say positive things back to you. And it’s not a conversation if it’s just all about you.
I know, I know: “art for art’s sake” and all that, but I think art for art’s sake plays too easily into American Individualism. Maybe I’ll unpack that further in a future newsletter. I do think there is room for both art for the artist and the audience.
As a last thought: at Poetic Underground, we stopped calling poetry therapy because it’s not. It can be therapeutic, but poetry is an art form. There is an audience. Give them something worth witnessing.
After all this, I’m not here to tell you what’s worth witnessing. That’s for you to figure out.
I’m simply entering the conversation.
I’ll be laying a little low in January, but I have 2 special events happening in February!
The first is the Kansas City Poetry Slam’s Birthday Showcase at 8 pm on February 1st at Blip Roasters. (Which hasn’t technically been announced yet, you’re welcome for the sneak peek!)
The second is a house show that I have a meeting tomorrow about because that’s what performance life looks like sometimes. Follow me on Insta for details on that as soon as I have them! But of course, I will include it in next month’s newsletter, too.
“I started doing stand-up comedy to push my poetry in a new way. Quite simply, I wanted to learn more about what it means to entertain people. Most of my poetry colleagues definitely gave me the “I could never do that” reaction when I told them I was going to do this…”
3 submission opportunities this month (that I’m also submitting to!)
Button Poetry Chapbook Contest - Closes January 9th ($15 fee!)
Garden Party Collective Chapbook Contest - Open January 8th to 14th (no fee!)
Central Avenue Publishing Poetry Prize - Open now through March 31st ($25 fee!)