So the first thing to note is that this is not scientific, it can’t be. One of the simultaneously frustrating and thrilling things about performance art is that it is subjective to the person listening/watching. There can never be an absolute “best”, but by-in-large I think I have assembled a pretty good frame of reference as to why some poetry features are just not good. As well as some practical steps on how to make them better. I talked to several poets who admitted that they never even thought about their features as a”show”. They had not done the thought exercise of — “I am being given 20 minutes to present my work on stage, what is the best most amazing thing I can do with that time to represent myself and my work” They pretty much said they show up to the venue and rattle off their best poems until the time is up. I would like to challenge that, I would also like to challenge the notion that poets do not have the creativity & the foresight to put together a piece of work, be that 10 minutes or an hour that has a viewpoint and a direction.
I had my own thoughts on what makes poetry features suck, but to make sure that my thought process was legit I asked a handful of poets what they thought made a terrible feature. I asked what are the times when they had someone on their mic that they wish they never booked, never confirmed, never even returned the Facebook message. I have combined some of the main themes into 5 points.
- Not knowing the audience/venue
If you have ever traveled the US doing poetry features you will know that each region has a different sound, they have different styles of poetry they react to, (this is exacerbated even further if you go outside of the US). A good performer should be able to pick up on that and pull from their repertoire of poems that fit the venue and space. Some poems work better for an intimate crowd, some poems don’t. If you are trying to rock that fresh hella personal poem, but the venue you are in has a cappuccino machine going off every 3 minutes and a bar 10 feet away from the mic then your poem 11 sonnets for Ralph Waldo Emerson, might not rock.
In my experience there are some areas where I have performed that the audience is there and hungry for beautiful well written poems, and there are some venues/cities where the crowd was there to be entertained. Crowds that valued the performance element over how well the poem was crafted. As a performer you have to be able to recognize the venue you are in, and what the audience is looking for and be able to adapt to that. What I am not saying is be unauthentic still do YOUR poems, still have your integrity, just reach down and pick the poems that work for the venue.
One of the things that I see happen some times is that a poet has a couple of good poems, so they win a couple of slams, and then a couple of people decide to book them a couple of features. Said poet gets to a city outside of where they are use to preforming, and those couple of poems completely tank which means the feature tanks. If you don’t have a lot of poems to choose from then you sink and swim with the ones you got.
So to circumvent this you really want to make sure you pay attention to the crowd and the venue before you perform, if there is an open mic, what seems to be working? Is the venue loud? does it look like a crowd that just needed to go on a nice date on a Friday night, or is it full of people who love poetry….depending on the answers to those questions you know how to tailor your set to put on the best show possible.
2. Uncomfortable banter
One of the first pieces of advice I received before I started featuring is “the thing that makes a good feature is what happens between the poems and not the poems themselves”. I have found this to be absolutely true. There should be a natural flow to your feature, you should have a general framework for how you are going to move through the poems BEFORE you even show up to the venue. Now at what level of detailed planning you should commit yourself to is where some of the feedback diverged. I think its a personal thing, me personally I normally know exactly what I am going to say in-between my poems. I know what jokes I am going to tell and the way in which I will deliver them. I obviously leave room to make things relevant to the crowd, make topical commentary on current events, etc, but the feature is pretty much a well oiled machine before I step foot on the stage. The worst thing is when a performer finishes a poem and then starts telling a couple bad jokes and then goes into this long winded – WTF are you talking about story – and then awkwardly goes into the next poem. Not being that person and nailing a fluid feature really comes with practice, knowing your voice, and understating what works and what does not. Which is what your friends are for, which is what your squad is for, which is what open mics are for, not features.
I was in Indianapolis and talked to a poet after a (my opinion) horrible feature where the crowd was not at all into it. I asked him how he thought it went and he said (no bullshit) “I was just throwing things at the wall to see what would stick, made some notes and will probably really rock the venue next time I am here” I was thinking they are paying you to be here, they promoted your whole entire face on a flyer, and you are just winging it?!?!
Like I alluded too however, there are two schools of thought on this concept, the one we have been discussing which is feature should be iron tight you should have a goal on what you are trying to communicate, and it can be human and warm but it should have a tone of legit-ness. It should not be to cavalier. The analogy was if you go to a concert and Beyonce gets on stage does a song, tells an awkward story, and then looks at a crumbled piece of paper to decide what song to do hey you would feel like she is not giving you a professional show. A slammaster I spoke to said “my audience deserves a professional show, not one that feels like you are making it up as you go along, it makes me as a slammaster feel like you are not taking this stage and your work seriously”
The other school of thought is that poetry features should be inviting and engaging, you should talk to the audience, you should take questions you should ask for poem suggestions (i.e do you want to hear my love poem or my depression poem?). There should be no pomp-and-circumstance it should be as if you are talking to some old friends in a living room. They feel as though a poetry reading or feature should be an intimate opportunity for a audience member to connect with the poet, even in a large venue you can still make your feature feel inclusive. Do note, the poets that sided with this thought still said the feature should be polished BUT it should just be mostly, if not all, unscripted.
There is a valid point here but I think only really great poets can do this well, I am all for “fluidity” of your feature to present yourself as open and human, but you have to be careful that it does not slip into the realm of unprofessional
A general consensus was – don’t do 20 minutes of depressing poems, or 20 minutes of political poems, etc etc.. we get it sir, no to the keystone pipeline, you hate the government, the congress is corrupt…now lets move on. No matter how great your work is there is a threshold on how much an audience can listen to the same thematic poem over and over.
4. Doing a full set of all your slam poems
This will not make your feature suck, it will just make it generic and sometimes exhausting. A great feature is an experience it has a viewpoint and an angle, it is well thought out…writing down all your slammy poems and rattling them off can build a narrative that often times fall short. There does not have to be a big production, but throwing in some shorter poems, reading an excerpt from a book, some haikus…something besides a cadence of 3 minutes…banter…3 minutes banter…3 minutes
As a good example of this in action, I remember seeing Amir Suliman do a feature at the Soundbites Poetry Festival in Brooklyn, it was to date maybe the most affirming and impactful poetry feature I have ever seen. It opened me up to a possibility that I had not considered at the time which was, holy shit, my 20 minutes of presence on the stage could actually mean something, could go further than my poems, could be an experience in and of itself. I left feeling uplifted, more aware, and charged to be a better poet and more intellectual person. Some poets features just make you want to go outside and take a smoke break, and I honestly don’t think it is a matter of said poet being “good” or “bad” its about how they decided they wanted to use their time to put together an experience for the audience. Some features feel like an ego stroke, I have never spoken to Amir about it but i would not doubt that he started with the question “what experience am i trying to leave my audience” and worked backwards from there as he constructed his feature. I think if you really got to the heart of it alot of poets main goal in a feature is to show you how good they are, how nice they are with the words, I really don’t think many poets start with the audience in mind, or the impact they want to leave in mind and work backwards from there
5. Going over your time
I know you got the fire poems bruh…
But if the host said 30 minutes be respectful of that time. They have a show to run, other talent to put on the stage, a venue that has to be cleared out by a certain time. One slam master said “there is nothing worse than trying to get a poets attention to tell them to to wrap it up, you are sitting there waiting for them to stop talking so you can get in their side view to give them a signal and they are not looking your way [read: ignoring you], so then, right when they finishing the last line of the current poem, you walk up to take the mic and they give you a hand signal that indicated they are about to do one maybe two more pieces when they are already overtime”
6. Being an Asshole
There are certain things you should not do, like try to have sex with everyone, or be drunk, or be begging for drinks. Or drop your poems and blame it on being high, or having too big of an ego. Or using the mic to bully people or showing up late or or or
I know this is hard for some of you but just present yourself with some decorum like someone is paying you to be there.