The writer is almost completely blocked by the podium where she stands, shuffling papers, adjusting her glasses. She's not sure what to read, and finally settles on what she prefaces as "something I jotted down on the train coming over." She keeps her eyes on the page, throughout, punctuated by on occasional plaintive look up at the audience at the end of a paragraph. Another 26 minutes of this, and the audience members have stopped looking at her, are surreptitiously deleting Emails on their droids, or escaping to the loo. The boyfriend who accompanied student Sally is darting her looks~he will NEVER agree to coming to a reading again. The writer looks over at the host. He is sitting in the front row, slightly to her right, a strained encouraging smile lock-jawed onto his face. She asks him, "Do I have time for another story?" Groan.
I once saw Philip Dacey come to the podium at a Passaic County Community College Poetry Center reading, with nothing in hand. He started speaking, and we soon realized, to our delight, that he had already launched into his first poem. For the next who-knows-how-long, we rode his poetry with him from joy to grief to nostalgia and back. Unfettered by paper, he had his whole program by heart, constantly engaging us with his eyes, his voice, his movements. We were disappointed when he stopped. When I decided to start doing readings, seven years ago, I vowed that, like Dacey, I would recite my poems~as in "recite: to repeat or utter aloud something rehearsed or memorized, esp. before an audience" (American Heritage College Dictionary).
There was a time when there were so few books and no standardized tests, so students memorized poems, passages from the Bible, plays, songs, multiplication tables. We all had a mental Rolodex of phone numbers and practiced strategies for remembering names. I have often been delighted when people "of a certain age" will, as Mary Ellen did in an open, hold forth with "The Owl and the Pussycat" or reel off a Dickinson poem to reorganize and energize a conversation. But with ready internet and speed-dialing, we have all lost our minds~that is, our capacity for memorizing, retaining, and accessing.
We have a recital at the end of the semester, during which all of my students present something from their semester~enacting a Shakespearean scene, reading their original work, doing a multi-media clip of an Achebe story. When I suggest that they might memorize their portion, they freak.
There are steps between the hermit behind the podium and flying the trapeze without a net. Yesterday, my student poets were rehearsing for this year's recital. Each person, in turn, positioned him- or herself at the front of the room. We dispensed with any podium, as it becomes a wall instead of a conduit. After a first reading of a poem, we considered how we might emulate what worked, thus building a repertoire of aspects for everyone to shape: hand gestures, eye contact, body movement; pacing, volume, articulation, use of silence. At this point, we also noticed what didn't work in a poem, inspiring changes to titles, beginnings and endings, redundancies, and dead zones.
Crucially, we noticed the relationship between reader and the paper on which the poem was printed. First, hands: Hold it down at waist level, and the audience is cut-off. Hold it up as a mask to your face, and it's even worse. We experimented with holding the page off to the side. That literally provided a heart opening to the audience~a sense of expansiveness and connection, so important to reaching an audience. Many students are adopting that as a mode.
Next, eyes: so tethered were some poets to the page, that they read ever word, one at a time, as if they were first-graders new to reading, at all. Of course, there was no way to make or maintain eye contact with the audience, and it was painful to watch. I recommended flashing onto phrases and looking up, in between. I showed them how I, who don't have their poems memorized, can retain whole lines at a time by this method. This was a revelation and eased the way. In some cases, students plan to relineate and change font sizes in their poems for easier visual groupings.
As a reciter and performer, I am nourished and inspired by the eyes of audience members. Some, however, get a deer-in-headlights daze. One student recommended this relaxation method: think of the people as sitting on a toilet~then you won't be intimidated. That was a LOL moment! But if looking into eyes is disorienting, simply looking at foreheads will engage the audience and relax the reader.
Then, I went after memorizing. Deanna was pinching her paper so hard that it crackled, and she was reading one word at a time.
"Give me the paper," I said. She did. I added, "OK. Now recite your poem."
"I can't," Deanna said, distressed.
"I know," I said, "Do it anyway."
And she demurred with more insecurities, and I just kept saying, "I know. Do it anyway."
And then she did. A whole stanza, until she got rattled that she could and stopped. But that stanza was so moving, her connection with us so profound, that we know she will come through for us all.
There it is. Drop the paper and remember what you remember. You will notice, too, what works and what doesn't, as you do. Many of the students are now memorizing their poems for the recital.
In the seven years since I first got up to recite, grabbed hold of the podium, and walked it off stage, I have memorized over 150 poems and songs, and created four 90-minute performance sequences with them. I have learned the importance of rehearsing while I'm in different modes of motion~walking, driving, biking, swimming; queuing up; keeping myself awake while others drone on (sometimes at readings), and putting myself to sleep at night; and, of course, stage rehearsals. The more mistakes I make in process, the surer I'll be with a audience. As I rehearse, I learn more about the poems and have had the best ideas for revision. The parts I have trouble retaining are worth revisiting for excision. Listy structures can be as boring on the page as in recitation. Through this process of memorizing for an audience, I learn how to more fully inhabit the poems and songs~how to embody them more deeply. The "drop-outs" or "mistakes" I might make in performance are just opportunities to boost the work. And who's to tell?
Proviso: NEVER have the paper or a prompter (electronic or human) nearby during a recitation or performance, because it invites the old addiction to reading from the page~it's a crutch. "The medium," wrote Marshall McLuhan, "Is the message." Unmediated by the page, the poet merges with the poem. Remind yourself: I am the message.
And, how much more exciting, for you and for your audience, when you walk to the front without sheaves in hand. And everyone realizes, you are flying without a net!
© 2014 Susanna Rich