“Why I Laugh?” Poetry Readings & Audience Feedback

As both a co-host of a poetry reading series and someone who has lately attended a fair amount of readings, I’ve begun to notice certain reading trends. The most notable one, and one that more seasoned readers and reading-goers probably recognized long ago, is the inherent connectivity bias an audience develops with more humorous readers. At our Mental Marginalia reading last night, of our five readers, the work of three tended away from overt humor, often eschewing it entirely. The other two poets utilized it extensively, which isn’t to say they used it as a crutch, but it was a heavier element in a broad emotional mix. These latter two received the most immediate and obvious audience reaction (though all five readers received very positive reactions at the end of their “sets”).

This makes sense. People laugh at funny things, so there’s always a straightforward way to know what worked. When that element isn’t present, it’s much more difficult for an audience to outwardly demonstrate their affinity for a particular poem. People tend not to applaud after each poem – unless it’s totally mind-blowing – which I’ve always found a little bit too polite, but I think it also stems from the fact that if people did do that, it would be very obvious when something failed, whether intentionally funny or not.

Failure is a good thing, though. (We’re poets, most of what we do fails on a number of levels!) Readings should be a place where poets take risks with new material and work out kinks. A solid balance with battle-tested material is key, but especially for new readers, it’s necessary to just get comfortable with the stage. The problem is that it’s difficult to gauge what does or does not work when an audience fails to feed-back with the reader; poets want some measure of relative failure when they present their work to an audience. Should we golf-clap? Wave tear-sogged tissues? Give the old Arsenio Hall hoot?

Obviously I don’t have any answers. Part of my curiosity here stems from the fact that I’m a relative newcomer to poetry readings in general. My own past experience, stretching back to my days as an undergrad a decade ago, was limited to “poetry slams” or the ever-dreaded open mic night: ham-handed, melodramatic, self-absorbed, and tremendously boring being the most common offences. One bad experience – nevermind multiple ones – can turn someone off poetry forever. Add to this our contemporary [popular?] culture’s value hierarchy that places comedy far above poetry (even though a good comedian is, by necessity, their own type of highly-specialized poet) and it’s no wonder that poets lean towards some form of levity to, whether consciously or not, attempt to avoid those all-too-common offences.

Now – and I’m not sure how old this particular lament is – we’ve suddenly boomeranged to find ourselves in an atmosphere where the complaint arises that poetry readings have become second-rate comedy showcases. Thankfully I haven’t really experienced that myself, though as someone who has seen a lifetime’s worth of bad comedy shows – stand-up, improv, sketch, you name it – I understand the frustration.

However, I don’t think the solution is to bemoan attempts at humor in poetry. That’s ridiculous. It seems incumbent on both the audience and the poet to find new ways to feed-back on one another. Poets needn’t become flustered by a lack of immediate audience reaction; consider it a golden opportunity to hone stage presence. If anything that might be the most criminally under-recognized problem for poets reading their work. At the same time, audiences shouldn’t hold themselves back if they like something, whether it’s funny or not.

I could probably go on about this, but I’ll stop here even if it’s too cursory (and also I lost my train of thought). I can’t possibly be the only person thinking about it all way too much, it’s something that deserves attention and conversation.

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