It went well. This entry is not about the work or how it was received (just fine!) but on the exceptional demands that "blue" material makes on the speaker. First I had to slenderize the poems so none of them sounded blue for blue's sake, making sure each line carried genuine content. At Chance Operations delivery really counts: Entertainment is valued. And real entertainers don't falter, shuffle through papers, get self-conscious, apologize for their material, mumble or mess up, and they care about timing and shadings in volume, speed and tone. They can't be worried about their clothes or looks, so I wore the simplest possible thing. I wanted first to have no patter at all before and between poems but saw I needed to give context at least twice but kept it very short. While rehearsing I kept revising, so the poems were not completed until the day of the reading. It was evening and I knew I would be physically tired before I even started, so I asked to "go first" and carefully geared myself up with a cup of coffee and protein, and sat alone to get focused and centered. It was going to take enormous confidence. I have never disciplined myself so severely for a poetry reading. The preparation paid off, though. Entertaining is no joke!
My co-readers on that evening were Eileen G'Sell and Gabriel Fried. The photo was taken by Tony Renner. Thanks to Chance Operations for the chance!
#5. Respect your audience (said Danny Thomas). Go onstage STONE SOBER and NEVER drink or smoke until your program is over. Don’t try to make people laugh. They will laugh if they want to; you can’t make them. Literate audiences are there to hear literature, and resent gimmickry. I once saw a poet accompany himself by twirling a plastic jumprope over his head to get a “whoop-whoop” background sound. If poet has a guitar, I leave. (It's like Madonna with her guitar; too embarrassing to witness.) At another reading, a cellist "echoed" the poetry. This supposed enhancement felt endless. But I was stuck in the front row and couldn't move, so I listened to the cello, which was a heck of a lot better than the poetry. Don't risk a comparison!
#6. "Always look better than they do" (Steve Martin). You may think that your normal scruffiness conveys that you are unpretentious, all-natural, and at one with the people, but in fact you are covertly communicating an insult to your audience: “I look like a slob because I want to look like one of you.” I saw a prizewinning poet read in jeans and t-shirt and sneakers that made her look as if she was about to clean her bathroom.
The other poet on the bill, Rebecca Ellis, had learned ahead of time about the customs of the venue and brought a pretty cloth to dress up the table. That way any reader could be comfortable -- and the audience stay focused on our upper halves.
This was the first reading I have ever given while seated. The manuscript pages lay flat on the table in front of me, no chance of dropping them. A cup of water didn't have to balance on the lip of a shaky podium. I didn't have to worry whether my knees were knocking, or if I was too far or too close to the mike. Freed from all that self-consciousness, my energy flowed instead into the audience and the poems. And afterward I didn't feel drained. Instead I felt very good. I have said for years that reading one's own poetry in public (like, for 40 minutes to an hour) is very hard work. Well, just this week I learned that it doesn't have to be so hard!
Dear Joyce: I know who told you that the three speeches at the [name omitted] University event must all be finished by 6:00 p.m., and that as the luminary, the star of the show, you must assume the podium last. You did so explaining that your speech had been written to fill 35 minutes, but that someone [name omitted, by both you and me] had implied that something awful would happen if we weren't all outta there by 6:00 p.m., so you'd skip through and make it 20 minutes.
So your talk on "The Writer's (Secret) Life: Woundedness, Rejection, and Inspiration," that we were all so hot to hear got clipped. My heart sank as you said, paging through your text, “I’m skipping here. . . I’ll have to skip this. . .” Mostly you read good quotations and biographical bits, and even made some high-literate jokes ("To tell one's name the livelong day to an admiring Blog”). We liked you, and laughed, and you looked fffabulous – tall and skinny, pre-Raphaelite face and rippling hair – can you be 69 years old? Unbelievable!). You even cared enough to wear cool earrings (they signify friendliness). But yours was not the happenin' speech that we, your fans, hoped to hear.
Yeah, but on reflection, who decided that writers had to do everything? Write well, get the right publishers, publish a lot, win prizes, teach well, look well, be friendly, gracious, amusing, helpful, open, socially adept, generous, available, witty, succinct and inspiring speakers, perceptive social commentators, and politically correct? And spokespeople too for their race, their gender, their faith, their politics, their genre? And all the while shrewdly and subtly sell themselves and their wares? Holy mackerel! People don’t expect even God to do all that! But I could clearly see that's what you aimed for!Enough already! For the artificial difficulties thrown in your way, you did fine, and I hope you got scads of money for appearing. Perhaps $8,000 (that’s what Jonathan Kozol, the anti-segregationist writer and educator, charges, last I heard). – Your Admirer and Fan.
"We are paying speakers $100 this year"
As soon as I read that I wrote back:
"Sorry, I will not do it for a pay cut. Gas prices, etc."
Why is it that everything goes up in price except what writers are paid? After 14 years, a 33 percent cut in a speaking fee? I'm no less experienced than I was in 1997. I'm no less published. I'm no less of a speaker. I'd be offended if it wasn't such a common occurence. But I respond differently than I once did. I DO NOT ACCEPT such insane offers. I don't accept the gig and then resent it and steam. I stay in the sanity bubble. Their budget is less this year? That's not my problem, it's theirs.
Yes, they may get someone else, but they will not be getting Catherine Rankovic. They have met their match. Maybe they will think twice before lowballing any other writers.
Wearing her trademark rhinestone pin saying "Bobbi," Smith sat with us, read us some early efforts and told us she writes Westerns because NYC says no romance fan wants to read about the Midwest, or even any Western state except Arizona or Texas. Wyoming does not cut it. We talked about digital, about vampire books, about agents. I don't think I've ever been so close to someone so creative as to invent 54 full-length novels, even if they're not the lit'ry kind I read (exclusively, mind you!). She said a romance-writers convention had once held a Hunk Contest, and the winner got to be on the cover of a romance novel, and it happened to be Bobbi's, and she did her book tour with him, drawing tons of fans smitten not with the novel but with the Hunk.
Above all, she said, "You have no control." Luck. Publishers' and agents' whims. Audience whims. Cultural and technological shifts. Her new book is digital only, and not by her choice; by her publisher's.
If you have ever sought an audience, doubtless the little-to-no audience has happened to you. I have seen a poet at a bookstore bravely reading to empty chairs. Once I read poems in a restaurant on a night raining cats & dogs. There were no diners. The audience: a friend from work and a man who had a crush on me (note: I later married this guy). I have given "workshops" on the topic of, say, writing tone and style, and had two people show up. I have taught classes of two (who stuck with me after others dropped out). Each time I doggedly went through with it. Slightly sick at heart, but it was my own expectations that did that. This happens at last to everyone. But show up and do your job (or your show). We can control only what we do; we can't control results.