When doing a poetry reading, it is always best NOT to take yourself too seriously. Prepare, yes. Have your papers in order, yes. Rehearse a little. Know your audience. But all of us who read our words aloud have grown to appreciate nobel prize winner Wislawa Szymborska’s sentiment:

Poetry Reading

To be a boxer, or not to be there
at all. O Muse, where are our teeming crowds?
Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare
it’s time to start this cultural affair.
Half came inside because it started raining,
the rest are relatives. O Muse.
The women here would love to rant and rave,
but that’s for boxing. Here they must behave.
Dante’s Infemo is ringside nowadays.
Likewise his Paradise. O Muse.

Oh, not to be a boxer but a poet,
one sentenced to hard shelleying for life,
for lack of muscles forced to show the world
the sonnet that may make the high-school reading lists
with luck. O Muse,
O bobtailed angel, Pegasus.

In the first row, a sweet old man’s soft snore:
he dreams his wife’s alive again. What’s more,
she’s making him that tart she used to bake.
Aflame, but carefully-don’t burn his cake!
we start to read. O Muse.

Okay, so I did Vertigo Xi’an Xavier’s Canton First Friday! The Poetry Spectacular last night. Beautiful night, fun arts event for families and galleries. Highly recommended. Don’t wait for a written invitation. The streets were hopping. It wasn’t raining at all and some of the crowd even came inside for the poetry reading.

In the theater, the opening act was the local HS forensics team. They wept, screamed, and scratched their skin through three performances. The audience clapped politely as one watched her kids drown on the Titanic, one drank bleach, and one (even more frighteningly) attempted humor. Then they all stood up with their entourages and noisily discussed how well they did as they departed and as I was being introduced. Michael mentioned to a couple of them that my poems have been used to win several state forensic oral interp competitions. Perhaps one kid shrugged.

Then a young woman came to the stage as I was putting my folder on the music stand.
“What time is the open mic?”
“After the feature,” answered Vertigo, the emcee (who is working overtime to build this event and sincerely seems to be a great guy).
“What time is that?” She asked.
“Are you leaving?” He asked.
“Yes. I’ll come back to read. I’m first on the open mic.”
“You should stay for the feature,” he nodded to me, standing at his elbow.
She looked me straight in the eye and said, “most poetry bores me, no offense.”

How could I take offense?

The rest of the evening went much better and we were treated to energetic performances by Mary Turzillo and Geoff Landis among others. Will the poetry gods forgive me for cutting out for the first poet in the open mic and then returning for the rest of the evening?

As I departed, the young woman (who had returned to chat her way through the last couple of my poems and take cell phone pictures of her friend) called to me, “you’re leaving? I’m crushed.”

My reply, “no offense.”

(cross-posted at cleveland poetics)

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