Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Drip Cafe


You have to hand it to pubs, cafés, and clubs that set aside an evening of the week to showcase local talent. Last night my friend Laura Valtorta and I had some trepidation about going to the Drip Café, located in Five Points, an area of watering holes for university students.

We were directed to a small back room with standing room only where a performer was playing the mandolin. It was some relief to see his gray hair, even more because it was worn below his ears. The audience was a blend of old and young, professional and student. I relaxed when the audience sang along with the performer on “It Takes a Worried Man.”

Following the music, the owner/presenter announced there would be a poet reading for 30 minutes followed by open mic. Laura and I gave each other a look. Thirty minutes is a long time for an amateur to read, and poetry isn’t an easy read. We left after a couple of poems.


I’m not the only person who is skeptical of writers reading their work. Even Gail Godwin (an author at the SC Book Festival) can’t keep an audience with a prolonged recitation of her work. On the other hand, there have been writers like Dylan Thomas who built his popularity on his electric performances.

Shouting words or charging through poems, notwithstanding Alan Ginsberg, doesn’t necessarily engage an audience and may alienate some. Tone goes a long way. It may be elevated like W.H. Auden’s or succinct like W.S Merwin’s or gravely like Robert Frost’s, all interesting readers of their poetry.

Though the Drip Café is an exciting venue, too many times I’ve been trapped in an uncomfortable seat in an ordinary room with a dry audience. Granted, my experience with poetry readings is limited, but from that limited experience I’ve drawn some conclusions.

I’ve learned to sit near a door so I can escape if necessary. I suspect the main reason people attend poetry events, especially those hosted by libraries, official organizations, or colleges, is not for entertainment, but to show support for the writer or to operate the sound system.

Writing skill doesn’t necessarily equate with reading skill. It’s a matter of communicating with two different audiences. Nonetheless, some talented writers assume the stage and utter words without inflection as if the poem alone will strike the audience with delight, guilt, or whatever.


If I’m going to inflict my poetry on an audience, here are a couple of things I’ll think about:

  I’ll introduce myself with more than one sentence. If the poet’s name was mentioned before she launched into a poem last night, I missed it.
  I’ll dress as if I’m interesting, and this doesn’t mean business or church clothes or something unusual. It means interesting.
  It isn’t often possible to select the venue, but if possible, I’ll read in a pleasant small-size room rather than a conference room or auditorium.
  Sounds simple, but I’ll make sure to read slowly and enunciate. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to wonder what the reader was saying. On the CDs of recorded poetry I own, the readers (sometimes also the writers) invariably articulate every word.
  Another thing that adds interest to a reading, whether poetry or prose, is to provide background information. I don’t like to be told what a poem “means” (aren’t we supposed to figure that out for ourselves?) but I will talk about writing it, maybe where I was when I wrote it, or how I got the idea, how long ago, that sort of thing.
  For me, short poems trump long ones (whether read or written). Maybe my attention span has a deficit, but I can’t keep on keeping-on longer than five minutes for any one poem.
  A sound system is an absolute necessity. No microphone means no voice. You might think this is elementary, but based on the readings I’ve attended, we need to work on simple stuff.
  I’ll avoid angst. Poetry lends itself to introspection, but I’ll dig into my files for amusing poems (granted, I haven’t written many of these). Poems on varying subjects are bound to wake up a listener here or there.
  Sometimes I work on a poem so long my interest, not to mention enthusiasm, has burned out and I no longer have the voice to do it justice. In that case, I’ll choose poems that aren’t so fresh, ones I wrote some time past.

It might sound like I’m preparing for the stage. Actually, I’d be terrified in front of the microphone. I don’t have a suggestion for myself about overcoming stage fright. And these writers I’m complaining about because I found them boring, well, they didn’t turn red in the face and tremble visibly. They probably didn’t spend sleepless nights worrying about the upcoming event. Did they castigate themselves for the things they could have done better? Get a case of the hives?

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