What Would Kay Ryan Do? Or: Strange Man Accuses Poet of Heinous Preamble

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of reading at Seattle’s beautiful Vermillion Art Gallery together with my mentor, Carolyne Wright, in an event sponsored by the wonderful people at Old Growth Northwest. It was a delightful night–the house was packed, the mood was lively, and the audience seemed to enjoy what we were reading. The event was one of the livelier, more fun events I’ve done in Seattle this year, and I was feeling great afterward.

Until I got an unsolicited after-reading critique, that is.Ā 

Usually, after an event, some people come up to me to chat, and I always love that. I meet other writers, I get to talk about interesting ideas with people who heard something that sparked their imaginations, and I make new connections with people. And a fair amount of that happened–a number of a lovely people gave me lovely remarks about my reading, and I hope that each of them truly did enjoy the event.

But then an older man came up to scold me about the fact that I gave a preface to my reading, and offered some brief comments between poems.

Giving a little of what I like to call “rock talk” is usual for me: I always thank the audience and the venue for listening and hosting, respectively. And I like to give between one and three sentences worth of context, transition, or anecdote between poems, and this night was no different. Furthermore, given the fact that I was reading from my novel-in-poems for the first time, I thought it might be nice to mention that the book was coming out next fall and sketch the general premise. I don’t give rock talk that’s longer than my poems–just brief tidbits between.

This guy was not well pleased with the thanking and the contexutualizing. He felt that I should be more like Elmore Leonard, he said, in that Mr. Leonard, I guess, believed in no such thing as prefacing. (I don’t know enough about Mr. Leonard to support, deny, or qualify that statement!)

I’ve never before had an audience member come up to me to give negative feedback about a reading, because, well, who does that? Most strangers are polite enough to keep unsolicited critiques to themselves at performance events. I’ll be honest: I was mortified by this man’s comments, and I have to wonder how many positive remarks about my readings he managed to undo with one rude one. Let’s be clear: getting up in front of people and sharing your work is not easy. It takes a lot of time to build the confidence to do it with aplomb, and it’s unfortunate when that confidence finds itself demolished. By the end of the weekend, this man had me wondering whether I really had given the most boring, obtuse reading of all time.

As I was trying to determine whether I really was a lousy poet, I was also surprised that this man felt he’d rather hear a rapid-fire reading of poems, one after the other, without any kind of context. For me, just as I don’t like to see a band that doesn’t engage the audience at all when it’s swapping instruments or retuning for a new song, seeing an author give a semi-automatic-style reading would be boring and awkward.

I thought about the kinds of readings I like to hear, and I don’t think I’ve heard a better poetry reading than one given by Kay Ryan last year in Pasadena. The minimalism of her poems glowed against the humor, warmth, humanity, and intellect of the comments that she gave, and I came away not only with a renewed appreciation for her work, but also with a sense of the person behind the work. I feel that I know something more of who Ryan is as a person, even though I’ve never met her. And so what if that means that her poems don’t “stand alone” in a reading? Poems don’t stand alone in the universe at all–not really. Poems are the products of the people who write them, not archeological artifacts to be presented without comment.

So the next time that I read, I’m not going to ask myself not “is someone going to chastise me after this performance?” and freak myself out. Instead, I’m going to ask myself “what would Kay Ryan do?” I’m going to give the kind of reading that I want to hear, whether or not Elmore Leonard would approve.

6 Replies to “What Would Kay Ryan Do? Or: Strange Man Accuses Poet of Heinous Preamble”

  1. Perhaps it was the adult equivalent of throwing rocks at someone on the playground (and equally inexcusable). Your work affected him, and he wanted so badly to say *something* to you about your reading, but the grumpy-asshole-critique was all that he could come up with. Not trying to defend the guy at all, just thinking of ways that it could actually spin out as a utterly misguided complement.

  2. An utterly misguided compliment–I like that phrase. šŸ™‚ Personally, I feel like there are some (not all or even most, by any means, but some) older men who either don’t like to see younger women being successful, or who think that a paternalistic approach to those younger women is a good general strategy for interaction.

  3. Dearest! I’m so sorry this happened, but people have come up to me several times – in fact, particularly in California – to tell me I should a. breathe differently (I didn’t explain that I have asthma, so shallow breathing is sort of a thing) b. read slower c. read more confidently (?!!?) or d. wanted to know why did I hate men? Sigh. I think it’s just part and parcel of public performance. On the plus side, think of all the people in the audience who thought you did a great job, but hesitated to say anything at all šŸ™‚

  4. You know, now that I think of it, I too actually had a breathing critique a long time ago at a conference! It was from a very sweet older lady whom I believe was an elocution teacher, and she seemed to genuinely, if oddly, care about the quality of my breathing, so I didn’t mind it so much. šŸ™‚ Would love to know what you said to the person who wanted to know about your “hatred” of men!

  5. Happened upon this via Jeannine Hall Gailey’s blog.
    I help organize the best little poetry reading series in the country ( bit biased) we focus on finding people who are good at READING their work. Kay Ryan drew a huge audience for us, many of whom had never been to a reading before and she held that room in the palm of her hand with such skill. Lots of chat, lots of asides, she asked questions of us! She was brilliant. A poetry reading is a weird animal. You ask an audience to focus so acutely to meaning, content, rhythm or lack of it, metaphor, and to “get” the leap that good poems include. Usually the room is in utter silence as people pay attention, or try to, if things go well you get that little ” ooh” at the end, or some laughter. So yes, please, please give us a break in between. Say a few things, let everyone breathe before you launch back in with the next poem. A bit of context, or humor, is a lovely thing.
    As for the “critique” some people get a mildly sadistic power kick out of making others uncomfortable.

  6. Thanks for these thoughts, Rebecca! I like the idea of letting people get a break and a breath between poems. A good way to think about it!

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