I’m coming at this as a poet who writes to communicate with an audience, and I recognise that an audience of 40 or 50 at a public reading is one thing, but reaching a larger audience through publication in magazines and books is a different but equally desirable aim. If that makes me a ‘page poet’ then so be it, but I dislike the term – it’s too often used with pejorative overtones. I think of myself as a poet, without any qualification or genre assignment. Pigeon-holing in advance confines audience expectation to what they know or assume about a form, and I think that’s limiting. I like variety, novelty and stimulation in poetry, whether I’m reading it on paper or hearing it on stage. I very much enjoy performance poetry, but I also enjoy hearing poets read their work from a printed page. There are many poetries and poets, and we’re enough of a minority in any case not to need subdividing.
However, all poets who read their work in public should learn some performance skills, because it’s all about enhancing communication with a live audience. I’ve heard some really crap readings in my time (I’m 70 now, and I’ve heard a lot), and there really is no excuse for not trying to deliver your words in a way which informs, excites and entertains an audience. I was an actor for 20 years, and I will freely admit to using some of the voice and stage techniques I learned to get my words across to an audience. And I’m irritated by those poets who say, “I won’t use the microphone,” and then proceed to read inaudibly. There’s no excuse – learn how to use the technology.
You don’t have to learn your poems off by heart to make an impact on an audience. There are reading techniques that you can use, with a text in front of you, to make it look as if you’re reading from memory, while making eye contact with audience members. If you’ve rehearsed your reading beforehand, and you should always do this, you don’t have to look at every word on a page to read out the lines. Besides, I’ve written several hundred poems in my time, and there’s no way I could learn them all by rote.
As a publisher, I know that what sells Calder Wood Press titles are readings by the poets themselves, and that’s why I never take on a poet unless I’ve heard them read in public and I know they’re good at doing it. After all, I take the financial risk of publishing them, paying the printer, and doing the sales and distribution, and that comes out of my pension. And I invest a lot of my time in producing the publications, because I love doing it. So the poets I publish are part of the promotion, distribution and sales effort; they have to be. And they’re printed on paper, so the poets can take their pages around with them and read to several audiences. Words get around.