It wasn’t going to be a quiet morning. The corporation I work for has an active cafeteria where employees are encouraged to utilize the common-area space at their leisure, and the cafe can get noisy. But it’s good noise, because everyone in the room is there to take a breather from their work routine. Management named the space the Chill Zone, because it was to be a place for more than simply sitting and eating. Workers were encouraged to meet there, and party there, too.
I had a fifteen-minute plan. I’d reserved the Chill Zone’s small alcove for a private poetry reading, and while the world doesn’t stop for poets, poets can and do stop the world.
I’m happy to say I recited my work to a small but enthusiastic group. This event was my first and it went off perfectly.
I wrote and self-published a poetry book last fall. It’s a few hundred pages and spans 1979-2016. With very modest sales and no outlets (hey, it’s poetry and hey, no one knows me) I’ve sold to readers in eleven States and three countries OUS. I believe in the book’s every word and yet, I’d never spoken those words.
Last week, I decided to change that. Why not hold a break-time reading, right here at work? I formulated a few goals and did some preparation. Let me tell you how I planned the event.
The goals for the reading were simple:
- Conduct my first poetry recital.
- Feature five of my book’s poems, in a fifteen minute span.
- The audience would be a small number of hand-picked friends, unfamiliar with my work.
Groups are most effective when they are gathered for a united purpose. I didn’t need five bodies—the listeners had to be the supportive sort. I considered my working relationships, and opted not to involve my direct department, or sister departments. Reason: I didn’t want a “buzz” around me prior to, or after the event. I needed my work space to be normal.
The audience was to be composed of some long-term friends, and some newer ones. I wanted a mix of ages and not all one gender. A range of departments would round out the listener group.
I approached each friend personally—not by email—and I was clear on what was not going to take place. I would not be selling or promoting anything. Also, I explained that my work did not include religion or politics. Lastly, I assured each person that we’d stick to the limited timeframe to conform to a normal break period. I got my five yeses and to be safe invited a sixth person, in case of a no-show. She accepted but later cancelled due to a prior commitment. (She emailed after the reading to ask how it went.)
The readers came from the following departments: Human Resources, Finance, Marketing, Customer Service, and Purchasing.
With five days to prepare, I needed to make my poem selections. A few of the book’s works were available as PDFs online, and a few others appeared on the book’s Facebook page. Although the listeners had probably not been exposed to those writings, I confined three of my selections to unknown “deep cuts” from the book, and picked two that had appeared online. The poems ranged in word count, subject, and mood.
Here’s what I’d learned during preparation.
Rehearse, alone. A stopwatch and notebook were used to record each poem’s recital length. Five poems consistently got me twelve minutes’ read time. I was a new reader, and learned that the spoken word was not the same as simply slowed and clear conversational mode. I also mastered the art of gracefully turning pages. The recital would be a performance, and I was to entertain.
Don’t assume to know the line. I’ve read and edited these poems for years. During rehearsals, I had a tendency to skip words, or hesitate and thus break rhythm. I learned to actually Read-Each-Word. I couldn’t let my voice rush away from where my eyes were on the page. With poetry, words are specifically chosen, like precisely laid stones in a patio. Don’t ruin the mason’s careful work with a slipshod read.
Each line sounded best when I’d found its natural bounce. There was a flow to the speed (or a speed to the flow) of each line and, when practiced aloud, I learned where the tricky passages were hidden in each poem.
Find the story-serving method to deliver the rhyme points. Rhyming words don’t activate on their own, they need a tonal buildup where the speaker’s voice helps the listeners accept the phrasing. A buildup can best be managed when we choose the endpoint—the “boom” of a second rhyme. Rhyming words should come to a natural conclusion within the poem’s context. As odd as it may seem, this involves thinking like a chess player and being aware of what’s coming next, while maintaining concentration on the current point in time. This is why rehearsal is crucial.
Here are the poems I selected:
- I would choose to be with you
- Stuck in Farving, Illinois
- In and out of sight
The recital morning arrived and I planned my wardrobe. Casual Friday would not apply to me that day, as I wore a suit coat over my newest work clothes. I wanted to look my best, with my appearance hopefully matching the quality of work I was to present.
At 10:30 everyone was present in the alcove. I noticed the reservation board listed an 11:00 event as a Cinco de Mayo celebration. I told you this wasn’t going to be a quiet morning!
The listeners gathered on a comfortable couch. I pulled up a chair for myself. I wanted to take a few moments and smooth the atmosphere, so I told them if this had been an art exhibition, I’d have some food and light music arranged for them. They laughed and settled in. They knew the group was complete, and what was coming. It was time for me to break the ice.
I opened my book to the first selection and began reading. I delivered the first two poems, which went smoothly and quickly.
The listeners were deathly quiet. Their silence insulated me, protected me, and provided an incredible sense of validation. Two or three seemed to be moved by the words. I’d hoped to break the ice but perhaps I’d torn up their lawn. They seemed okay with that—despite the teary eyes. They nodded for me to continue with poem three.
I took them back several decades to the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers MA, and related the bittersweet sight I’d seen one day. There was a lesson in that poem and we all learned it, them for the first time and me all over again. With the third poem completed, we were set for the recital’s centerpiece, which took place in the late Twentieth-Century Midwest. We were into 6-page, 4-minutes long territory, the recital’s epic piece, and I brought the listeners to a motel parking lot just out of Illinois.
Everyone was as quiet as they’d been at the start. It seemed to me they damn well cared what happened in that parking lot. This is why I said poets can stop the world. We were all stopped at the protagonist’s dramatic pivot. What was he going to do?
The poem had a tricky ending, with two voices, but it went perfectly.
The reading concluded with a selection that didn’t rhyme but had a deep commitment to family, friends, and love. This poem had proven popular since its writing, and it delivered five smiles at the reading—just as I’d hoped.
The recital was over. We had a moment to chat as a group, and my friends understood what I meant about desiring time to discuss what specific pieces meant to each of us. I received some warm feedback as we spilled into the hallway, and via some nice emails afterwards, too.
I feel much closer to these friends now. I enjoyed every aspect of the recital and am beyond happy I had such a good group to count on for help. Poems take on a bigger dimension when they come alive in spoken voice, and it was a privilege to have an opportunity to present the work this way.