Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Poetry Readings: The Art of Creating a Poet-Audience Bond

by Michele Wolf

Standing at the podium, I was only midway through my third poem when the shift showed up—a sunbath when the clouds slide out of the way. I was connecting with my audience. I was sending and they were receiving, and they were sending back. It is one of the most rewarding feelings you can experience as an author.

This particular reading was at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, part of the Community Reading Series affiliated with the Hood College Young Writers’ Conference, where I was the featured poet. Much of the audience was the high school students I had spent time with earlier that day, so we had already begun to form a bond. But it can happen at any reading, and when it does, the sharing of the work moves from beyond the page to a more intimate encounter in which audience members absorb a living gift and often provide immediate thanks.

I have given easily a hundred and some readings over the years. But this one was especially meaningful because I had been on an almost complete hiatus from presenting—and attending—readings for six years. That’s because my husband and I became parents to an 11-month-old, and one year later I left my flextime writing and editing self-employment to take a full-time editing job at a magazine. I was able to keep on writing, sporadically, but something had to give. And that something was the readings, the being out there—which also meant I gave up most of the in-person socializing and sense of community that come with that. I never realized to what degree I missed this until I resurfaced. I had been a little starved.

Of course, the trade I made was a pretty amazing deal. My daughter, Caroline, who is seven and a half now, is the center of my world and the source of almost a quarter of the poems in my new book, Immersion. At times she is also my poetry teacher. The other day she showed me a homework assignment in which she described a hand as “a peninsula of the body” (I think I might steal that one).

Sometimes I bring her to my readings, and she already understands the poet-audience exchange—how stimulating the process can be, and what gets amplified because of the communal nature of the event. The sequence of the poems is important: Although most listeners are game for discovery, they want to end up having enjoyed the ride. The narrative arc—yes, even with pure lyric poems—matters, as do variety, pacing, and tone. And delivery trumps them all. When I give a reading, I try my best to inhabit each poem, to be fully present—immersed, if you will, in the implications, sounds, and rhythms of every word.

“A good poem restores our sight and our hearing,” former U.S. poet laureate Charles Simic, one of my early teachers, said recently in an interview. The experience is compounded when you receive that poem in the writer’s voice. My friend Jud Ashman, who heads the Gaithersburg Book Festival, put it well when he described what it’s like to be mesmerized by a top-of-the-line reader: “My soul goes on a vacation,” he says.

As a poet, it is my job to provide the powdery sand and the palm trees, a piƱa colada and ever-lapping waves.

Join Michele Wolf to celebrate the launch of her new poetry book, Immersion—selected by Denise Duhamel for the Hilary Tham Capital Collection—as she reads with Jeanne Marie Beaumont at The Writer’s Center on Sunday, March 13, at 2 p.m., as part of the Open Door Reading Series. Michele’s previous books are Conversations During Sleep (Anhinga Prize for Poetry) and The Keeper of Light (Painted Bride Quarterly Poetry Chapbook Series award). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Hudson Review, Boulevard, North American Review, and many other literary journals and anthologies. A contributing editor for Poet Lore, she has been a Writer’s Center workshop leader since 2002. Check out http://michelewolf.com to read Michele’s poems and learn more about her books, workshops, and events.

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