The Ten Books I Would Save in a Fire
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence
The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats
The Collected Plays of William Shakespeare
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Pleasure or Punishment: Hearing a Poet Read
by X.J. Kennedy
American poets have it too easy. They’ve been spoiled rotten by audiences too polite to pelt them with dead cats.
Let me begin with a radical assumption. A poetry reading ought to be good theater—at least good enough for listeners to sit through with pleasure and a modicum of understanding, without falling asleep or wishing they were home watching television.
Not all will agree. For some, there is a certain cachet in being able to say, “Wasn’t so-and-so a deadly reader? But what terrific poems!”—thus demonstrating an ability to look past superficial distractions to essences. Still, by its nature, a poetry reading, no matter how modestly or coolly the poet reads, can’t help being a performance. And for better or worse, the poet, as Louis Simpson once declared, is in “Po Biz.”
Poets, other than performance poets, may hesitate to regard themselves as performers. They may prefer to think of themselves as simply sharing their work with friends. All the same, every poetry reading, however relaxed and low-key, is a dramatic confrontation. The poet faces an audience, and the audience expects, at the very least, something diverting and interesting. Chagrin awaits poets and their audiences when they fail to accept their role as performer and prepare for it.
Let’s go back to an ancient notion: that poetry ought to give pleasure. Some poets today assume that their listeners (and readers) will sit still for anything. This indifference to an audience is more common than might be supposed. We have only to attend a few readings to be grateful to the unusual poet who strives to hold our attention by any means. We smile at Robert Bly as he dons rubber facemasks and acts the parts of villains; we relished the performance of Allen Ginsberg as he jingles finger-cymbals and chants “Om.” Regardless of what we may think of such histrionics, Ginsberg and Bly recognized the theatrical nature of a poetry reading. I, for one, am grateful to them.
I don’t mean to argue that poets ought to do anything at all to regale us. If pleasing vast crowds where the poet’s only business, then poets would all write Hallmark greeting card verse or rock lyrics. At its best, though, poetry appeals to every faculty of the listener—to feelings, heart and mind—and I do believe a poet may ask listeners to do some thinking. Unfortunately many poets, though they mar write excellent poems, read in such a way as to appeal to none of those faculties.
I hesitate to blurt harsh truths, but for the past 40 years I’ve felt uneasy about poetry readings. From 1955 to date, I’ve attended many hundreds, and for years had charge of a series of readings at a college myself. I’ve given up expecting a reading to be entertaining. Nowadays when I go to one—because I’ve read the poet on paper and had my appetite whetted, or sometimes because of a sense of social duty—all I expect is to glimpse the poet’s personality. Some readings I’ve sat through seemed sheer Chinese water torture; others left me elated and inspired. What I am about to say may be unfair to poets who, naturally, yearn for a chance to utter their works to the world. But I feel obliged to stump for more readings of the inspirational kind, fewer of the inhumane.
How hard should a poet strive to regale an audience? Not at all, said the late William Stafford, a modest man unwilling to dramatize either himself or his work. Talking with an interviewer years ago, Stafford recognized that in some countries a reading is a piece of polished oratory. He recalled hearing Voznesensky, and he didn’t resent the Russian’s flamboyant delivery: “When he gives a reading it is a great performance.” And Stafford had kind feelings for Vachel Lindsay, who wrote poems to be performed, such as “the boomlay boomlay poem.” As for himself, however, Stafford preferred to tell an audience, “I’ll say you a poem,” not “I’ll perform you a poem.” Then he added in these especially revealing words:
Most of the poets I know would feel a little guilty about an effective job of reading their poems… It feels fakery enough to be up there reading something as though you were reading it for the first time. And to say it well is just too fakey. So you just throw it away.
To my regret, I never had the pleasure of hearing Stafford read, but for that splendid poet and man of integrity, I would gladly have sat and listened to him throw poems away. And yet in that candid statement Stafford puts his finger on the chief reason why, for listeners, many a reading is an ordeal. Afraid to be thought egotists, poets hesitate to admit that they enjoy their own poems. And, laboring under the assumption that poems ought to be raw lumps of spontaneous life, not polished works of art, they hate to confess that they have read old work in public, lest a reading seem premeditated. As no poem after poem gets tossed away like Kleenex, as if the poet expects the audience to pick up after him.
Why should poets feel guilty about reading well? To be sure, not every poet ought to declaim with the spit-spraying voice of a Voznesensky, a Lindsay or a Dylan Thomas. Among my fond memories are readings by Robert Creeley, Donald Hall, Carolyn Krizer, Yusef Komunyakaa, Denise Levertov, James Merrill, Anne Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass and Richard Wilbur, to mention only a few—readings that weren’t flamboyant or declamatory, yet which I immensely enjoyed. No doubt it helps to have a magnificent speaking voice, as do N. Scott Momaday, Allen Grossman and Geoffrey Hill, but it suffices a poet to read precisely, with feeling. How seldom it is nowadays that we hear a poet red slowly, clearly and distinctly—giving us a sense that words matter, taking time to give an audience any necessary pointers, patiently removing any obstacles to comprehension and stopping in good time before the listeners are worn out.
Listeners, I suspect, enjoy only what they more or less understand, or feel they have a half-chance at understanding. At least that has been m experience. On first hearing a poet read a rich and complex poem I haven’t read on the page before, I feel thwarted—I can’t take in the whole of it. Its words fly by too rapidly, and before I’ve begun to care about it, the poet is galloping on to the next poem. If the poem sounds likely to be enjoyable, I promise myself to look it up and read it. Still, I often quit a poetry reading feeling like a one-pint measure into which the poet has tried to dump ten gallons. Eager to give us as many poems as possible, poets don’t take time to prepare us thoroughly—to tell in detail what we need to know, explain the allusions they’ll make, the occasions (if any) that made them write the poems. All of that is old stuff for them; they assume it to be old stuff for us too. In fact, I’ve heard few readings by poets who didn’t take for granted, on the part of us auditors, a much larger foreknowledge than we could possibly have acquired.
The system is entrenched. It’s part of the game of poetry readings for listeners to accept the compliment that they understand far more than they do. As listeners, we like to deceive ourselves that we have caught and digested poems at whose fleeting tail feathers we have merely snatched. Though unable to offer hard evidence, I suspect that most listeners’ generous reactions to poetry readings (as expressed to the poets afterward) are politely fraudulent. But I’m not complaining. That is a kind of pleasant social hypocrisy that does not great harm: indeed, probably it is a morale-builder for poet and listener alike.
Consider for a moment your aspiring poet. He (or she) is invited to read far less often than he would like and when at last he gets his chance, he isn’t allotted nearly enough time to read all the poems with which he burns to impress us. Practically exploding with pent-up material, he will, unless restrained, lay it on us until our ears run over. As a rule, he reads only his latest work, often some manuscript on which he is still working. He hopes that the audience will acclaim it instantly—a wistful hope, for he still has doubts about it himself. Poets tend to avoid reading their best-know successes, possibly because they’re tired of reading them (as Elizabeth Bishop grew weary of “The Fish”), often to the disappointment of their listeners, who hope to hear something they’ve seen in an anthology.
In assuming that they can try out new poems on audiences and so learn something that will prove helpful when they revise, poets deceive themselves. Because a poetry reading, I maintain, is a theatrical situation, listeners tend to respond not like solitary critics but like spectators at a play. They want to laugh, or be stirred. Generally it’s the funniest or most shocking materials that draws the loudest response, not necessarily what is excellent. A subtle lyric may leave an audience bemused, while a crude polemic whose last line screams, “My brother is dying of AIDS!” may draw applause from a crowd, who may feel guilty if they don’t clap dutifully. In rewriting, the poet is ill advised to listen to crowd reactions. If the poet has one judicious friend who will respond honestly to a poem in manuscript, such a friend is a far better guide.
That people tend to react in direct fashion is true of a normal, unsophisticated crowd, such as we find at a community college, or in a bar that has Budweiser on tap. At certain lofty bastions of poetry readings, however, where the audience is well read and familiar with trends, they may react hardly at all. Indeed, they may glance about at their fellow listeners to make sure it’s all right to laugh or applaud. For a poet, the most heartwarming audiences are often those least well-schooled in poetry. It’s a lucky poet who gets to read in some small college town removed from the major flyways. I speak from the poet’s side of the podium here. One of the most receptive crowds I ever had was in Cisco, a one-street oil town in West Texas. Nothing so curious as a poet had hit in human memory, and the audience was ripe to cheer practically anything. At Harvard, Yale and Berkeley, I have been treated with more kindness than I probably deserved, but in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Owensboro, Kentucky and Lake Charles, Louisiana, I’ve been so warmly received that the afterglow has gone on for years. In all those places, just for coming to town, I was an event on the local TV news. As a wise poet once declared, what poets really want isn’t criticism. It’s love.
Open mic readings, by the way, strike me as about the weakest form of entertainment since the invention of the grade school Christmas musical. Open readings are popular because sometimes they are the only way to collect much of an audience. They can be endurable if the readers are strictly limited to five minutes a head. I can listen to anybody for five minutes, even enjoy a brisk parade of odd and diverse personalities. But no audience should be asked to suffer through a half hour or more of some semi-literate would-be immortal’s maunderings. Every open reading needs a stern moderator, able when necessary to shut off the flow with a wrench. Richard Moore, who has run two successful, long-live reading series in Boston, is such a moderator. At an open reading, I once heard him tell someone waxing loquacious, “OK, Jim, that’s enough—stop now,” in a tone the brooked no argument.
I like to hear someone make a few remarks before a reading, and not say merely, “I give you a poet who needs no introduction.” For most of the audience, the poet sorely needs one. The introducer needn’t bore us with an extensive bibliography and a catalog of the poet’s prizes, but I’m always grateful to hear some personal reason for liking the poet’s stuff—a factual side-light or a crumb of gossip that hasn’t yet made the contributor’s notes, anything to whet my appetite.
After a reading, should there be a question period? As a reader, I’d rather not have any. I feel I have already taxed the audience to the limits of patience. As a listener, I wouldn’t want to go to a concert and, after, have the solo violinist come before the foot lights to be interrogated. Now, some who host poetry readings have found that question periods tend to be much livelier and more enjoyable than the readings themselves. That may be true of many readings, but a question period can be a downer when the poet has put on a decent show. Then the performance ends not with a bang but with a classroom discussion. Sometimes, after I have closed a performance with a song, the moderator will ask, “Are there any questions?” and there won’t be any—only an embarrassing silence. I’m always glad when this happens. I then suggest that instead of asking questions in public, people come up and we simply talk together.
In truth, American poets have it too easy. They’ve been spoiled rotten by audiences too polite to pelt them with dead cats. Years ago, Desmond O’Grady, an Irish poet visiting this country, thought it his duty to heckle poets whose readings he attended in Harvard Square. He would act hard to please, like a customer at a Dublin pub. At one reading, by a poet with stentorian tones and a highly formal manner, O’Grady launched a one-man attack. “Come off it, man!” he kept shouting—”Give the poems a chance, will you?” But the people in charge of the reading weren’t accustomed to such rude behavior. In my mind’s eye I can still see O’Grady’s shoes furiously kicking the air as two husky bouncers haul him bodily out of the peace-abiding Cambridge Center for Adult Education. O’Grady made a pest of himself, to be sure, and yet I suspect that, if all poets had to face the threat of such abuse, poetry readings might well be the better for it.
For a poet, by the way, to be hackled can be a wonderful piece of luck. Once, at the San Francisco Poetry Center, as I was reading a poem about growing up Catholic and going to confession, a drunk staggered to his feet and bawled, “Awww, this is just a bunch of Catholic propaganda!” and reeled out of the room obscenely muttering. I could have hugged that man, for after he left, a great wave of sympathy from the audience rolled over me, which lasted for the rest of the show.
Ever since 1975 when I began reading poems to schoolchildren, I have suspected that to face an audience of kids is useful training for a poet, however painful. College audiences, by contrast, are generally pushovers. If forced to attend a reading they neither enjoy nor understand, they will prop their eyelids open and politely keep on sitting. But if second-graders are bored, the poet can tell right away. The kids get up and run around.
It’s salutary for a poet to know that listeners don’t care for dull or pompous patches. However, such unpalatable truth is hinted rarely. Were every poet to realize that he or she is involved in a form of show business, then readings might bloom as never before in America. Slam poetry, it’s true, often does a healthy business nowadays. I deeply admire the efforts of slam poets to popularize their work beyond the college campus, but let’s make a crucial distinction: much slam poetry depends not on its text, as poetry that merely sees print has to do, but on sheer acting ability. All very well, if we define poetry generously. No doubt, thespian skills can make any sort of overwrought prose palatable. But personally—and I may be a book-bound curmudgeon—I’d like to see a wider audience for poetry that not only impress us when heard but which stands up on the page when read silently.
At any rate, if poets who print their poems and give readings might operate by the following simple rules, I’m sure their listeners will be more numerous from now on, and grateful to them.
1. Assume that your audience doesn’t know you, doesn’t know your work, doesn’t give two hoots about it. That may not be the case, but you will never go wrong if you make this assumption, the way you will usually go wildly wrong if you assume the opposite. Expect to have to work to win them over.
2. Plan your program carefully. Arrange your books or manuscripts in an orderly stack and make sure you can locate poems instantly. At one open reading I attended lately, two complete asses forced their audience to squirm on metal folding chairs while each spent three or four minutes in paging through their voluminous notebooks, searching for certain poems which, on the spur of a moment, they’d decided they had to read. While they rummaged, I felt my resentment coming to a boil. To redeem themselves, they would have had to come up with something as good and original as “Daddy” or “Sailing to Byzantium.”
3. Never expose to public scorn anything you’re still working on. Would a composer stage a concert of early drafts? Would a theater company put on an unfinished fragment of a play that still had problems? (Actually, in these process-worshipping days, a theater company well might do such a fool thing, but I’d rather go to a ball game.) Don’t assume that your listeners are laboratory gerbils, at the mercy of your experiments. You won’t learn a thing from their collective reactions—at least, nothing you can trust. Regard yourself as the servant of your listeners. Read only what you feel reasonably certain of.
4. If you have any old chestnut poems that have landed in anthologies,, by all means, read them. Your hearers might enjoy the pleasure of recognition. Whether or not you have yet been widely published don’t be afraid to read your best, no matter how old it may be.
5. Consider opening your reading with something to make people laugh. This advice comes from a master, Robert Frost. It isn’t a commandment and it doesn’t work if you don’t ever write anything funny, but it isn’t contemptible advice. Audiences sit there just waiting for a reason to laugh. To be part of a laughing audience is one of the great, civilized pleasures. A bit of a remedy in the middle of your show might leaven the poetic mix heavier and lighter, personal and impersonal, amusing and angry, whatever.
6. Preface each poem briefly. Before you read it, explain whatever parts your listeners may find tough understanding. To do so may take you a discouraging amount of time, so resign yourself to reading fewer poems. if a poem requires as much explaining as The Waste Land better leave it out. In general it’s better to talk more and read less that vise versa. Robert Frost, that consummate performer, used to devote as much as nine-tenths of his reading to talk. In a whole hour, he might deliver no more than six poems. But he made sure that each poem went over, carefully preparing his listeners for it, sometimes reading or reciting the poem a second time. Poets’ confidential remarks about their work habits are usually fun to hear. Moreover, such talk allows the listener to knock off work, sit back for a moment, and laze. A bit of talk also helps indicate where one poem ends and another begins. At some readings when the reader rushes on and on, loading us with more poems, we can barely notice any such divisions.
7. Don’t read to your page, read to your audience. The timeworn trick of the classroom teacher and the professional lecturer may be useful: address your gaze to someone in the last row. Or mix it up—now and then look intently at different people. This device may also help discourage them from going to sleep on you. All the better if you can say your poems from memory and not have to look at the page. If you don’t know any of your poems by heart, then probably you haven’t worked on them long enough.
8. Read slowly, distinctly, and above all, loudly. If possible, make do without a microphone, unless the room is huge and your voice feebler than a grasshopper’s. Reading poetry over a public address system is like making love with a condom—it protects, but sets up a barrier. Assume that some of your words will be lost in midair, and strive to make that loss as small as possible. Don’t gallop through a poem like a waiter reciting the daily specials. When asked by an American listener why he read his poems so deliberately, Yeats replied that he wanted his listeners to know that his poems were the products of toil.
9. Stop after about 50 minutes. It takes concentration to listen to poetry, and that is about as much as an audience can endure. The most excruciating reading I ever heard, by the late Charles Olson, dragged on for more than two hours. Then Olson asked, “Are there any requests”—and didn’t some idiot have one, calling for some long and impenetrable work that prolonged our agony by another half-hour. Luckily, Olson, who had been quaffing steadily out of a concealed bottle, grew tired of his own voice and broke off in mid-poem, saying, “Aw, the hell with it”—which remark must have summed up, by then, the feelings of most of his audience.
10. When reading in tandem with another poet or poets, stick to your assigned time limit. A circle in Dante’s Hell might be reserved for poets who can’t turn themselves off on time, and insist on hogging the show.
11. If you have books to sell, delegate someone else to do the selling. You’ll have enough to do just talking with people and signing books without trying to make change for a twenty. Don’t expect to sell many hardcover books at $29.95 to a low-budget college audience. Try to have at least one item to offer cheap. If you do, you will also do a favor to the people who invited you, who might feel obligated out of politeness to buy a book. I believe it was Robert Bly who once declared, “Always give ’em something to remember you by,” and who used to bring to his readings some broadside or leaflet to hand out free to all. I’ve tried that several times, and the response was gratifying.
12. Unless you have Dylan Thomas’s legendary powers of absorption, and can stride from a bar directly to a podium and read magnificently, don’t drink heavily or smoke substances before or during your show. The temptation to whoop it up can be a pitfall if a reception committee takes you out to a convivial dinner with plenty to drink beforehand, and you start feeling godlike. So watch your step. Stoned readings are more fun for the sonee than for the audience—unless, of course, the poet makes a total clown of himself, and slips and falls into the orchestra pit, landing with a resounding crash of cymbals. to read poems well, you need your wits about you. If you can’t face an audience without gin or wee, stay home.
X.J. Kennedy is a former poetry editor of The Paris Review and the author of An Introduction to Poetry. This essay originally appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine and is used by his kind permission. His two latest books of poetry are: In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New & Selected Poems 1955-2007 (Johns Hopkins U. Press) and Peeping Tom’s Cabin: Comic Verse 1928-2008 (BOA Editions).
Who Should Self-Publish–and Who Shouldn’t by Scott Edelstein
“Scott, should I publish my book myself or go with a traditional royalty publisher?” People ask me this all the time, hoping I can give them a simple answer. But the only honest answer is, “It depends.” As with the questions “Should I have a child?” and “Should I go into the family business?,” the answer is different for each person. So let’s roll up our sleeves and dig into the various issues and details.
For starters, the phrase “publish my book myself” now has multiple meanings. Two decades ago it invariably meant printing and binding physical books. Today it can mean any or all of the following:
- Printing and binding physical books.
- Print-on-demand (POD) publishing: creating a PDF file (through Lulu.com, Blurb.com, CreateSpace.com, or some other such website), then printing 1-50 books at a time using the site’s high-end laser printer.
- Ebook publishing: creating an electronic file for downloading to specific devices such as Kindle, Sony Reader, etc., and/or for downloading to computers via Word, Adobe Reader, and so on.
Self-publishing can mean doing any or all of these under your own imprint (e.g., Edelstein & Co., Books Galore, The Hypothetical Press, etc.) or under the imprint of an existing company (e.g., Trafford, iUniverse, Author House, Beaver’s Pond Press, etc.). This latter option is also called vanity publishing.
There are several very good reasons to self-publish:
- You need your book available soon.
- You know exactly who your audience is—and you know how to promote and market your book to them.
- Your book has a very small, very specialized market (i.e., it’s unlikely to sell more than 3000 copies)
- You love marketing, selling, networking, schmoozing, and/or publicizing yourself—and you’re good at it.
- You want everything about your book done your way.
- You want things done right, and you don’t trust anyone else to do it properly.
- You can’t bear to earn only 5-15% of your book’s retail price in royalties; you need to have a bigger piece of the action.
- You simply want to do it—for the fun, the experience, and/or the potential profit.
There are also a few terrible reasons to self-publish. Interestingly, and somewhat tragically, these are also the most common reasons why writers actually choose self-publishing:
- You’re afraid of being rejected.
- You’re too lazy to pitch your book to publishers or agents.
- You don’t have faith in yourself or your work.
- You’ve already been rejected two, or five, or 20, or 50 times, and you’re getting depressed or losing hope.
- You’re impatient.
- Some shortsighted editor, agent, or writing teacher told you, “There’s no market for this” or “You’ll never find a publisher”—and you believed them.
- You didn’t believe a royalty publisher would be interested, because you’re not well known in any way and haven’t published anything before.
- You thought new writers had to self-publish.
- You fell for a slick sales pitch from a self-publishing company.
It’s also possible to self-publish initially, then make a deal with a traditional royalty publisher later on. Gail Larsen, who teaches people to be more engaging speakers and presenters, wanted to make her book, Transformational Speaking, available as quickly as possible, so she self-published a small initial edition. Simultaneously, she got an agent, who pitched the book to a variety of presses. Ten Speed Press (now a division of Random House) bought it and published it in early 2009.
In a similar example, Barbara Burke self-published her book, The Napkin, the Melon and the Monkey, in 2006 and sold a few thousand copies. Realizing she had something of significant commercial value, she pitched it to agents, and quickly got one. The agent swiftly sold the book to Hay House, which will republish it in 2010.
There’s some risk in this strategy, however. Suppose you self-publish your novel, sell 650 copies, and then try to take it to agents or royalty publishers. If someone is interested, they may ask, “How many copies were you able to sell?”—and their interest may evaporate when they hear the number 650.
Ultimately, the best way to answer the question at the beginning of this article is to ask yourself a bigger one: What am I trying to achieve—for myself, for my readers, and for the world? Hold up each of your options against this larger goal, and pick the one most likely to get you there.