The first time you read a new poem it’s like a first dance. You’ve spent so much time choreographing the steps, practicing the movements, pauses, turns. You’ve built an experience between the two of you that now brings you to this moment, ready to present yourselves publicly.
You have the audience anticipating what’s to come, a mixed crowd, coming with their own, varied understanding of anything and this reading. Maybe this poem is the first poem your read, or maybe it’s the last of your 10-12 min. slot. Maybe the audience already has an idea of what it is you have left to say.
Watching the dynamics change as you read, either new or old poems, is always intriguing. There are some that you know have tuned out many poems or poets ago, attempting still to appear alert and interested in the way you’ve just played with “space” or serial poems. And when you’re the last poet to read, you feel the weight of having to carry yourself and your poems through. Order, here, matters.
Recently, for me, this was exactly the case. As the last poet to read at a reading, I was charged with “bringing it home.” During the intermission I shifted and shifted and shifted my poems’ order, wanting to live up to my duty as The Last Poet to Read. Do I read the poem that ends “snapped broken on the ground” last or “touching everything that breaks” last? Both are great closing-liners, but the poems have such a tonal differences. Decisions. Light / heavy? Heavy / light? Is the light poem really light? Go with what you know. Go with what you know.
In the end, I decided to end with the rookie poem, the one that could go either way. It was a new style and a new tone, a venture into some sort of humor. Never considering myself to be humorous by nature, let alone poetically, I didn’t know how this one would fair. Leading up that moment I could tell the audience was ready for something to shift in my reading. The old standbys were not producing the expected reactions or moving of spirits. What would this last poem do? What if they don’t find it even awkwardly funny? Nonetheless, I pulled it out as I finished reading the poem before it and we started our dance.
The first few lines came, a few, small chuckles followed. The third and fourth line flowed out and then more laughs came, surprising and genuine. I continued to read and felt the air become lighter. I was breathing again. Who knew I could write a poem that could make others laugh?! Certainly not me. Did I discover some unknown crawlspace within myself filled with dusted, un-mined treasures? Maybe. Or maybe it was something else, something very simple. Maybe it was that this audience and this poem had their first dance. This was dance that didn’t belong to or, in some ways, even included me. Poems, whether new or old, are always a first dance with whomever is hearing them for the first time. During a reading, poems, whether new or old, are serious of first dances with whoever hears them for the first time and are touched or moved in some way. These dances, ballroom-like, happen simultaneously and you as the poet are somewhere in the middle of it all as observer and orchestrator.
I tell my students that we do not choose to be poets, but that we are born poets. We have born with the purpose of telling the stories of those who cannot tell them themselves. Our words should touch, heal, or change something in someone. And so our poems are never meant to stay with us as our partners, but meant to go out to others and fall in rhythm where and with whom they are supposed to. I know this — but in the moments when I can actually see it happening, watch something move or shift in the air, it is so magical. This reading showed me a new way that my poems can move, how they do move, and who they move with. I am so exited to take the news and run. Who knows though, the next time I read it, that finale poem may trip all of over the feet of the lady in the third row constantly adjusting her glasses or lose sync with the guy by the bar drinking his 3rd PBR Tallboy. Yet and still, I know that at lease one time that poem danced harmoniously with someone, and will do so again.