I attended an event called "Poetry on the Spot" at the Minnesota Reading Association’s convention last Saturday. Featured guest Nikki Grimes (whose Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope is #1 on the NYT Bestsellers List) joined with five area (Minnesota-Wisconsin) poets: Joyce Sidman, Susan Marie Swanson, Lisa Westberg Peters, Sharon Chmielarz, and Rob Reid for a kinda-sorta-little-bit-likea-poetry-slam.
Sharon Chmielarz, Nikki Grimes, and Rob Reid
Susan Marie Swanson, Joyce Sidman, and Lisa Westberg Peters
The event was sponsored by the Children’s Literature Network, and it worked like this: Nikki would read a poem, any poem, from any of her many published or unpublished works. Then it would go around the table, with each poet reading a poem of their own that in some way connected with Nikki’s poem.
It was fun to see their minds scrambling as they sought and found connections between poems. Sometimes it was serious: "This poem also touches on the theme of goodbye or loss." Other times it was more tangential: "This poem also mentions a shoe!"
Some of my favorite poets were reading here, and in addition to enjoying their poetry, I learned a few tips about presenting poems in front of a large room! I’ve got to work on my own presentation style as I get ready to present and promote my book Stampede! next year, so I’m going to try to remember that:
While quiet, serious, or wry poems may work well in a smaller, coffeehouse-intimate setting, you have to really have presence to pull them off in front of a large room. I think each person in the audience has to be focused solely on you, and you have to have created a connection. For a scattered audience, like teachers tired after a long conference day, very funny or very dramatic (not quietly dramatic) poems work best.
Sometimes it works well to have a "poetry persona." You can tell Susan Marie does tons of school residencies and works with kids a lot. She has a "poem voice," a child’s voice and inflection that isn’t present in her regular speech but that comes out when she reads her kids’ poems. It helps the audience connect the poem to kids, I think.
Update your poems! Rob Reid performed a fabulous rap (I’m going to have to find out exactly what it’s called and where you can find it), and he said later that the original was decades old, but that he updates it periodically. It now contains a reference to Harry Potter and other more recent cultural touchstones.
Be dramatic. Nikki Grimes has a dramatic, confidence voice when she reads her work. She demands attention–and gets it.
My daughter Annabelle is also naturally dramatic. Here she is during open mic.
Speak up. Sometimes, in quieter, more serious poems, the poets let their voices drop to reflect the intimacy of the thoughts in the poem. But that just made it hard to hear.
Slow down. Listening to poems is hard work. The language is dense, and a lot is going on in just a few words. I really appreciated it when the poets spoke clearly and very slowly, giving my mind a chance to keep up.
|OK, right now, I just have to work on being able to say my poems out loud without my voice shaking. Lisa Peters called me up for the open mic part, and I read one poem from Stampede! But the presentation was not good. But once I master the basics and get decent at reading in front of a crowd, I’m going to try to implement some of the things that worked beautifully during this Poetry on the Spot event.
After the event, I got to chat with the poets (most of whom I already knew because they’re local). That was fun to catch up and also to chat with Rob Reid, whom I didn’t already know.
And then later that evening, my husband and I went to dinner with Nikki Grimes. It was terrific to get to chat with her about her travels, her experiences with her Barack Obama book, and lots of other things. And I tried Indian food for the first time. (I know, I know. I’d NEVER eaten at an Indian restaurant. I don’t like the flavor of curry, and I thought pretty much all Indian food had curry in it. Wrong.) The whole evening was delightful!
Me with Nikki Grimes
Poetry Friday is at Yat-Yee Chong this week. Enjoy!