If you attend a Tyler Johnson poetry reading you are guaranteed to be entertained. Tyler, of Carrboro, North Carolina, is an accomplished musician on the guitar, mandolin and banjo, as well as a seasoned folk and contra dancer. At his readings, he will get you moving with his melodies. Our paths crossed when he found out I’m an Irish dancer who is also an aspiring traditional fiddle player. With North Carolina’s rich Scots-Irish history, Tyler’s passion for traditional music and storytelling ensures that the current and new generation appreciates our state’s rich musical and cultural heritage. Thank you again, Tyler, for joining Write from the Inside Out today!
I used to be a serious poet.
Thank God that’s over.
So when Alice Osborn asked me to write about what it takes to give a good reading, I became concerned. You’ll see why in a minute. First, let’s drop by that reading of local poets.
They had difficult childhoods. And we’re going there to acknowledge that. To listen in silence to line after line ending in that tentative upspeak that only poets can achieve. That subtle rise in pitch that hints at hope, but ends in ennui. We’re going to bathe in our shared disappointments. To endure a gentle flogging of lassitude.
Wanna be my date?
I don’t blame you.
But I would have tried to take you. Until recently. Until I stopped being a serious poet.
Here’s what did it for me: Reggae music. Don’t get me wrong, I love reggae, but trying to read my serious poems on stage while a band played steel drums and bass on the next stage over was just too much indignity to bear. This audience did not come to be taken to a dark and solemn place. They came for a hot dog and the free watermelon.
That’s when I decided I needed a new approach. I would be funny, or at least amusing. If my poems were no good, at least people would appreciate the break in seriousness from the poets that preceded me. The problem was I only had a few funny poems. No worries, poets are entrusted with minutes at a reading like children are entrusted with petits fours at a wedding: no more than two and I had better not catch you sneaking any.
Guess what? They loved it.
So here’s what I’ve learned since. People love to be entertained. They love to hear stories. They love it when you make a personal connection with them. When you talk TO them. And look at them. So quite often now my introductions are much longer than my poems. Yes, I’m one of those writers.
I found I was able to reach much larger audiences. Not just the usual gathering of poets at poetry readings who are only there for the open mic that follows. But regular folks. Folks that claim they don’t like poetry.
I’ve identified a whole set of humorous or highly accessible poems from my collections. These are the ones I trot out in public. If there is a real downer it stays at home. If the meters are subtle, or the effects reliant upon layers of meaning, those poems stay home. They’re more appropriate for quiet reflection and reading from the page.
But here’s the irony: Once I’ve warmed up my audience, once I’ve gotten them to trust me, once they know that I’m not going to bore them to tears, or burst into tears myself, then they open up to me. Then they are ready to consider something dark, or hear something mournful. Then I can I be a serious poet. But only once or twice. And I always end on an up note. That’s important.
Some will say that this is a dumbing down of the work. Some will say that the poems should stand on their own without ornament, comment, or narration. Some will scowl and cough into their fists. Go ahead. I understand that. I was afraid of that, too. But it seems that I’ve been able to open the door wider, to invite more people in.
There’s a subtler thing that happened as well. But it’s more important. I found that it isn’t about the poem. The truth is, nobody really cares about a poem. What they care about is the connection, the human connection, between the reader and the audience. And if they do react to the poem, it’s not because of how tightly it’s constructed, or your innovative use of meter. It’s because it invokes something emotional in them.
So how do you give a good reading? You open the door to your inviting home and you welcome them with your warmest, best self. And you offer them petits fours, but only two. Maybe they’ll like you. Maybe they’ll come back. Maybe this will turn into a relationship.
Ask yourself this: Can my poem compete with a steel drum band?
Maybe the reggae musicians had it right all along. You got to lively up yourself, and don’t be no drag…
Tyler Johnson is the author of Tales from the Red Book of Tunes, a music and contra dance adventure. His first book of poems, The Swamps that Close, was released in 2004. Dancing the Haw, a collection of fifty new poems, will be released in 2015. Listen to the tunes and join the conversation at http://www.TylerJohnson.com