This doesn’t seem like such an absurd thing to say. But somehow, in poetry, it is.
There seems to be (among the poets / readers / hosts of readings that I know) a perception that to ask for a reading is somehow déclassé, a little too brash. I confess to having been guilty of it in the past, on a number of occasions. I was part of a group for several years that hosted a reading series. I was responsible, for some of that time, for finding and booking readers. It was a time-consuming endeavor that involved attending local (and not-so-local) open mic readings and workshops, and cold-emailing poets whose work I read and liked, among other tactics. It was stressful to network, to arrange schedules, to advertise, to negotiate payment (or, in the case of a small group like ours, dinner and a drink in lieu of payment). It’s a demanding job to organize a reading, although often a rewarding one, especially when the poet you’ve managed to book is fantastic, as many of ours were. A few times, poets approached us and requested that we add them to our schedule of featured readers. It was always a little surprising when that happened, and definitely not something we ever became accustomed to.
Which is kind of silly, really. In poetry, acceptance and rejection are standard–you send poems to a journal and wait for an answer. Sometimes they love you, sometimes they don’t. So why should readings be any different? Why should the burden fall solely on the organizers to book poets–why shouldn’t we give poets the opportunity to submit their work for review for readings? The acceptance, rather than a publication, can take the form of a reading. It’s not particularly far-fetched, and it might make life a little easier for everyone.
I mean, think about it:
Last summer, I went to San Francisco for a week’s vacation with my family. I stayed in the very awesome apartment of very awesome friends in the very awesome Mission, and filled the week with touristy and non-touristy adventures. What I really wanted to do, however, was check out the local poetry scene and maybe give a reading. But of course, it didn’t happen. I didn’t really know where to start, and I knew I had to be invited –it would be out of protocol for me to contact a venue hosting a series and ask them to add me to their roster. But it seems ridiculous that I couldn’t do exactly that.
Look, most poets who write and publish want to read. Even if they don’t particularly enjoy the experience, it’s just something that often comes with the territory. But as a local poet, it’s incredibly difficult to book a reading–mostly what happens is the same people shuffle around to the same open mics, listening to the same handful of readers and waiting for the host/organizer to say “Hey! You come to this open mic a lot–why don’t YOU read for us?”
I think poets approaching organizers directly becomes awkward because the organizer feels put on the spot. In that very brief moment, the organizer often feels they need to say “Yes” or “No”–often without having seen the work of the poet, and sometimes having seen it and just not liking it. There’s very little room for diplomacy in that moment. But if the planning of a series were to take a different turn–say, a formal submissions process (via email, x # of poems and an audio/video clip; expect a response in 30 days)–the awkwardness would be gone. Maybe it’s a little more cumbersome for the poet, but that’s not something we’re not already used to.
And of course, the by-invite process doesn’t need to disappear completely. But it gives the rest of us chance, too.
If I had the time, I’d start a new reading series. And probably a journal, too. And I’d run a submission process pretty much just like the one I’ve described here. Sadly, school, family and work are taking up too much time. But if you’re a reading series host/organizer, feel free to steal my idea. In fact, I challenge you to try it.
And in the meantime, I’m available for readings. You can always email me (rebpoetry [at] yahoo [dot] com) to invite me to read for you.