The Poet’s Soapbox
Another public forum for expression of what interests few people (albeit too few in my opinion) is the literary reading. Considering how few people now read poetry, there are a surprising number of regular poetry readings.
The audiences are certainly small. Poets swap stories about doing readings where the number of people in the audience can be counted on one hand. I can easily trump all of their tales of woe. Some years ago I was invited to read at Ontario Place in one of their outdoor band shells. I arrived to find a stage equipped with a fancy mike, a powerful amp, and huge speakers. As the scheduled time to begin approached, I waited for the crowds to come pouring over the hill to hear me. But I soon grew apprehensive; I’d had enough previous experience giving poetry readings. When it was the time for me to begin, no crowds had appeared. I can say, however, that I did have a fair size audience, for a flock of seagulls settled in on the hill facing the stage. And they seemed reasonably attentive.
This story has a happy ending. The next act was a rock band. When they showed up, I told them my tale of woe. They’d had experience with small audiences too and were quite sympathetic. They made a generous suggestion, which I most gratefully accepted. They powered up the amp system and started playing. Music, any music, attracts people, and soon a substantial number of bodies were sprawled out on the grassy hill facing the bandstand. They gave me my cue, and I walked up to the mike.
We’d arranged some hand gestures I could use to signal cadence changes and pauses, such as stanza or line breaks. The band warmed up the audience with a cool introductory riff, and then I began reading. They weren’t jazz musicians, but they definitely knew how to improvise on the spot, and they did a fantastic job of giving my poetry a rich musical context.
I’m ashamed to admit I can’t remember the name of the band, but I sincerely hope they eventually attracted audiences so huge that they played at Toronto’s The Air Canada Centre or Massey Hall. Me, I remain grateful if my audience isn’t totally avian.