“Any poet that regularly finds themselves in front of a live audience will inevitably err towards humour.” I can’t remember who said this, but I think about this quote a lot. As a poet that spends most evenings standing in front of a live audience, I totally get it. Laughter is seductive. Vain creatures that we are, we all want to know how well we’re doing, and “a room full of people who are impossibly moved are pretty much indistinguishable from a room full of people who are impossibly bored”.
I’ve been reading poetry onstage for about 16 years. Live performance finances my writing, and as a result, almost every aspect of my poetry has ended up being shaped by the assumed presence of a room full of people staring back at me. I’ve developed a hypersensitivity to audience expectation, which (for better or worse) has permanently skewed me. I now see myself entirely from the outside, and so do the poems I write.
This is possibly a guilty confession? I don’t know. It’s just how things are for me. I know it makes my writing a product of a very particular moment in time, but I suppose that’s true of everything.
I thought I’d try to expand on that quotation at the top of the page, and write about some of the other ways that live audiences have effected my work.
My obsession with audience expectation is almost certainly rooted in the nebulous way that poetry travels through the rest of live entertainment. The vast majority of people reading poetry to audiences aren’t appearing at poetry readings. They’re popping up at the fringes of cabaret shows, rock concerts, hiphop nights, live art shows, in fringe theatres, and so on. You don’t have to follow a poet about for very long to realise that no two audiences are alike. Almost every performance comes with a different contract between performer and audience, and part of the challenge is identifying what that contract is, then trying to find a way to meet that contract as quickly as you can. If you spend a lot of time on the live circuit, you have to wear a lot of hats, and not all those hats are going to fit you perfectly. You’re forever running into rooms wearing the wrong accoutrement. Life is one big Blackadder sketch. As you can imagine, it’s hard to work like this and still talk about the audience in the platonic. You’re always in a state of negotiation. You go to where the audiences are, and you’re glad of the work.
As part of this negotiation, a performance has become less about my identity as an artist, and more about the subject matter I’m discussing. Over the last few years, my content has become increasingly specialised. Yesterday I went to Margate to read a sonnet series about videogames to a room full of delegates from a nearby gaming conference. That’s the kind of gig that could only exist in an age of online marketing, through which niche audiences and niche artists can quietly and secretly arrange to hook up with one another. And the draw here is the subject matter – it was a love of videogames that got those people out their hotels and into the venue, not any interest in me. All of us were engaging with a mutual interest, rather than trying to make the interest Poetry itself.
Here’s the biggest misinterpretation that audiences make about poets: they think we know what we’re doing. They don’t realize what lazy chancers we really are. If the audience actually realized how half-cocked our ideas were…that we had no idea where a poem would end up when we began….I can’t help but think they’d relax and enjoy the ride a bit more. But because the audience only ever gets handed the polished final artifact, most of the journey is lost. This is a problem that increases exponentially live, when the audience only gets to experience the poem once through. It’s all too easy to for a poem to turn opaque and drop like a stone.
I’ve been thinking about this for a few years. Actually, since I heard OULIPO member Ian Monk reading a series of univocalisms (poems that only contain one vowel) to a packed library in South Kensington. What I loved about Monk’s performance was that the audience could imagine exactly what it was like to write the poem in the first place. We know that when Monk wrote down the first line, he had no idea where the poem was going to end. Monk had to intuitively let the constraint lead the work wherever it wanted to go. Reading the poem aloud became a simulation of the writing process, and I liked that. We got to play along, fighting the constraint side-by-side with Monk, trying to follow our own sense of intuition.
Hearing Monk in that library was a bit of a lighting bolt for me. It engaged with an audience in such a different way, positioning them at the start of the writing process, instead of at the end. It’s something I’ve since tried to emulate in my own work, and it’s the main way that live performance has changed the way I write: I try to let the audience into my ignorance. I stop before the final draft, and leave parts of the skeleton on show. I try to make it abundantly clear that I have no idea where I’m heading, in the hope that I can bring my audience with me on the journey. They get to experience the process of writing, rather than be handed the finished product.
Maybe I like this idea because deep down, I believe that writing poetry is more fun than reading it. Or, at the very least: knowing how poetry is written helps us enjoy it so much more. It would also explain why about 80% of audiences at traditional poetry readings are also poets themselves. This is possibly not as damning as it first sounds. It could just mean this: no matter what bizarre stage you find yourself reading poetry on, if you want your audience to enjoy themselves, maybe you don’t have to turn yourself into a comedian. Maybe instead, you can try to turn your audience into poets.
. Laughter is a useful index for judging a performance, but even then, it’s worth remembering that people laugh for different reasons: recognition, nervousness, utter bewilderment… and I’ve seen poets exploit all of these with great aplomb.
 Worth mentioning that these aren’t always places where poetry is welcome, at all. Somewhere in Britain right now, an ill-conceived arts initiative is forcing a poet onto a room full of people who are busy doing something else. I thought I’d be better at sniffing out the stinkers by now, but optimism still gets the better of me. Someone says to you, “Hey, do you fancy doing a gig on a magical golden boat?” Which sounds like too good an offer to pass up, right? Until you turn up to discover that it’s actually the Magical Golden Boat Chinese Buffet in Croyden, and you’re warming up for a septuagenarian ventriloquist and a woman who sings the theme music from Godfather II.
 The difference between reading from paper or reading from memory has an additional effect here. Regardless of the tense of the poem, reading from paper seems to mean, “I am reporting a poem that happened before” whereas reading from memory has the effect of saying, “this poem is happening right now.” Some poems I have to pretend to read from paper even when the sheet is blank, because it’s just too crazy to say that shit whilst looking into someone’s eyes.
About The Author
Ross Sutherland is a poet, playwright, host, lecturer a member of the highly acclaimed Aisle 16 poetry collective.