Buried in the tsunami of comments on my Blog of October 26 were some musings by Therese Broderick about performing poetry at an open mic. Therese is a thoughtful poet who likes to ponder the many & various issues of modern poetry both in & out of our community. Her comments reflect some of the issues that I have confronted over the years in practice & thought (this is not meant as a point-by-point response to Therese's comments, I'm just bouncing off them randomly).
Some poems are best left on the page while others can be successfully performed, & I think there are even a few that only work on stage, their flaws too blatant, too documented on the printed that they should only be performed. This became apparent to me in the early years of the QE2 open mic when I tried out some of my poems on the audience. The poems with the "literary" tricks that require close, multiple readings, or that use literary devices like footnotes usually don't work with a listening audience where the poem is over & gone in one recitation. An early poem I wrote without thinking of the listening audience, "Richard Nixon Must Die," actually worked quite well on stage because of its use of parallelism & repetition, not to mention its shock images (e.g., Tricia Nixon's collection of stolen panties). I soon began half-consciously incorporating such techniques when writing poems so that they would work well on stage. After all I wasn't having much success getting poems published, but could always read them at an open mic & at least a dozen people could experience them.
Approaching this from the other direction, I use open mics as a way to try out, field test if you will, my poems. I test out the poem & my manner of performing/reading them so that if & when a reading opportunity arises I will be able to put together a program of tested work to give the audience its money's worth. Based on my experience at open mics I've re-written poems, changed the way I read them, or incorporated "performance" such as props, music, multiple voices, etc., or even not used the poem at all in a performance. And believe it or not, I have many poems that I never read out. Although, as I write this, it occurs to me that perhaps there are reading settings where the quieter, or more intricate -- I'm struggling to find the correct adjectives that aren't demeaning to the reading scene -- poems that I don't (usually) read at open mics. Perhaps you've been to that reading.
A final point is that of memorized poems v. reading them from a page. When performing with 3 Guys from Albany I would do my poem "The bass player's thoughts..." from memory, but clutching the text in my hand both as prop & as "Dumbo's feather." As a writer, I like seeing a text used -- we work hard at preparing that text & it should be honored. Committing a poem to memory, or free-styling as many hip-hop poets do, can be liberating. But as with jazz improvisation, free-styling is usually not really "free" but a collection of practiced riffs strung together in the heat of the moment, sometimes exhilarating, often mundane. And -- you can find this somewhere in my past Blog entries -- sometimes a memorized performance can be more acting than poetry, more show than substance, a wonderful aesthetic experience, but not what I paid for, more show-off than sharing.
Anyways, thanks to Therese for prompting this.