#7. Don’t apologize onstage. If you make a mistake, a slip of the tongue, knock over the mike, etc., ACKNOWLEDGE it by saying “Oops!” or “Let me try that again,” and MOVE ON. Never begin a reading by apologizing for anything. (“Some of these poems aren’t very good” “This is an excerpt from a novel, so it probably won’t make any sense to you”) The audience doesn’t perceive this as honesty or humility. They've wasted their time coming to hear literature that even the author thinks is no good.
#8. People will not remember what you did, but they will remember how you made them feel. (Attributed to Walt Disney)
#9. Heckling is rare, but don’t ignore it if it happens. Always have a response ready. At a reading in a pub, I saw a poet heckled by a drunk. The poet bravely tried to ignore him. Rather, he should have acknowledged the heckler by saying something like Hank Williams used to say: “Somebody get a shovel and cover that up over there.” Dick Gregory, who integrated the Playboy Club, handled a heckler thus (preserved on a live recording): “If you don’t like me, why don’t you just get up, burn your cross and leave?”#10. Is your audience fidgeting, bored, escaping out the exits -- while you're reading? Change your tone. Not your speed, but your tone.
A very serious young student heard me read from my poems. I asked her opinion later. (Never do that.) She said, "Cute."
She was being pompous in a twentysomething way (recalling too well my own flaming youth), but this lodged in me like a grain of sand in an oyster. Of all the things I've been and ever aimed to be, I've never wanted to be cute. I'd like to be entertaining, like Chaucer, but also have his smarts. Coy, kittenish -- no!
A hundred defenses occured to me: She doesn't register my feminist politics -- because she's so young she never had to have any! -- She has no idea what poetry costs! -- and so forth.
Then I saw this Soviet-era quotation from a poem addressed to poets:
“[…]/ This is for you—who dance and pipe on pipes,/ sell yourselves openly,/ sin in secret,/ and picture your future as academicians/ with outsized rations./ I admonish you,/ I—/ genius or not—/ who have forsaken trifles/ and work in Rosta*,/ I admonish you—/ before they disperse you with rifle-butts/ Give it up!/ Give it up!/ Forget it./ Spit/ on rhymes/ and arias/ and the rose bush/ and other such mawkishness/ from the arsenal of the arts./ […] There are no fools today/ to crowd open mouthed round a “maestro”/ and await his pronouncement./ Comrades!/ give us a new form of art—/ an art/ that will pull the republic out of the mud.”
Spot-on, I thought. Was that what my student had meant? But has a poet ever done that? Maybe Whitman? But with such a muddied republic as ours is? Can it be done? What would it cost me? Should a poet care what it might cost?