For the Love of Non-Literary Loving Tweeters

Austin International Poetry Festival 2011

I’m not much of a poet. By that I mean I don’t write poetry, nor do I see it as one of my go-to entertainments, but like all writers I have a deep appreciation for good poetry, especially in a live setting. So, a couple of us WepWoppers went to a few of the events surrounding the Austin International Poetry Festival and, compared with last Saturday’s experience at the Texas Observer’s Writers’ Festival, it is, in two words, younger and more niche.

This should not come to you as a surprise. In this age of 140 character tweets and ever shortening attention spans, poetry remains in obscurity outside the classroom. Inside, it’s academia’s pinnacle of pretension, but of all the other literary mediums, it has the most potential to grab new, younger audiences. Poems have the swift language and metaphor that its longer counterparts simply can’t compete with at live readings. It has the immediate power to connect the audience with emotions, be it humor, anger, frustration, or regret, and have them shouting or laughing in quick succession, whereas a short story or novel would sprinkle such punches over the course of 15-minutes, half an hour, or even an hour. What non-literature loving tweeter wants to sit still for that long, even with free booze?

Poetry slams, for example, have been on the rise in the past decade, from the National Poetry Slam to Austin’s weekly poetry slam. The latter of which is run by reigning champion Danny Strack, who we had the pleasure of meeting. He also hosted the “Haiku Deathmatch,” which, without mentioning our own attempt, he told us was a growing fad in the poetry community. The quick humor most of the haiku authors strive for is a factor, but it is undoubtedly the immediacy of haikus and short poems coupled with the audience’s thirst for competition that is making them a popular part of slams and poetry events.

I’m a pretty traditional guy when it comes to writing. I like 20-page stories. I like boring yet vigorous Carver-esque minimalist sentences. And I like dull readings with an author propped up behind a podium. But, I also know that not only are these things no longer appealing to the new generation of writers and readers, but they definitely won’t bring on a new revolution of literary-connoisseurs.

Which leads to the question that’s been floating around the We Put Words On Paper camp ever since our SXSCongress Literary eventHow does the author/performer make a short story as entertaining and brisk as a poem or haiku?

We have a few ideas of our own (you’ll see soon enough), but we want to know what you think. What would make reading a 10-page short story more enjoyable for the audience?

(Besides booze, we already know that)

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7 Responses to For the Love of Non-Literary Loving Tweeters

  1. kimmerlyaj says:

    Great post, Zakk! Booze is certainly a must. I think music to accompany the story/poem benefits everyone, as well. Especially if it’s an odd instrument, like a harp, or a glockenspiel, or CLARINET (yesss! Going to learn songs to play with everyone’s pieces at literary shows! lol)

    People are generally attracted to enthusiasm and charisma, so deliver your piece with as much excitement as you had when the idea first struck!

    I’m curious: of our readers, what is your favorite literary event you’ve ever attended, and why? What elements made it cooler than the rest?

  2. I think the reader just needs to have some sort of charisma. I’ve seen readings where the writer goes up there, reads their story, mumbling into the microphone, eyes down, no life, no nothing JUST BORING! But listen to NPR’s Selected Shorts on any given sunday and you’ll hear what prose reading is supposed to be. It’s no surprise most of the readers (who usually aren’t the authors mind you) are actors. There has to be presence. Music, though a good suggestion, can only go so far, especially if the story runs longer than the piece, or if the mood changes and there isn’t a good plan for that. But a good actor can turn a story into a wonderful monologue; something you want to hear.

    I had a writer I know send me a test of her reading a piece she had written. Her intention was for me to see the piece, but I saw more than that. I saw the posibility of even maybe serializing these videos because she became the character that was speaking. It wasn’t that author reading to me, but the person she had put on the paper.

    That is what your reader, or you, have to do. You have to embody the piece. I’m not meaning be hokey and give people different goofy voices like it’s story time for the preschoolers at the public library (though that too can be effective for adults). But read it in a voice that isn’t necessarily your “own”. Characters should be written with their own voices (if the writing is good) and it should reflect in the reading. A reader should be able to have people be interested in what they are saying, and draw people into it by how they say it. A good reader has no need for music, lighting effects or anything else.

    Or just be David Sedaris.

  3. kimmerlyaj says:

    Haha, or just be David Sedaris.

    Great point, Chris. I agree wholeheartedly.

  4. Tracey says:

    A slide show of photos related to the short story oooooor the instrumentals to songs related to the different settings, emotions, or moods in said short story.

  5. kimmerlyaj says:

    That’s a neat idea, Tracey.

    And Zakk, I forgot to mention, the first time I read this post, the part: “Inside, it’s academia’s pinnacle of pretension, but of all the other literary mediums, it has the most potential to grab new, younger audiences.”

    I don’t feel like it’s the pinnacle of pretension in academia. At least, in my experience– the English/Lit majors carried more chips on their shoulders than any self-conscious poet, unsure if what they’re writing is new or inventive! I do agree that it has the potential to grab new and younger audiences. Most people, when they imagine poetry, go straight to Shakespeare or Dylan Thomas or Sylvia Plath–all of whom I enjoy, but are not MODERN poetry. Kim Addonizio, Sharon Olds, Margaret Atwood– people should be reading these poets, too. And even they are not new or very young in the poetry world.

    That’s all for now. 🙂


  6. Vince - I'm just a fan... says:

    I would have to agree with all of the above statements so far. I don’t consider myself a poet, writer, or an avid reader by any means, but I am a fan of words and how people use them. And while checking out readings at the Austin International Poetry Festival, I found out “just fans” (non-poets) attending readings are a rarity it seemed. But from a fan’s perspective, I would agree the reader alone is enough keep the audience’s attention, but music or sound effects due help.

    I went to one reading during AIPF and the theme was “Music and Poetry.” It was simply four individuals playing old school folk/festival instruments while poets went up to the mic and read. One poet read a poem about the evolution of mankind from the swampy marshes of the earth. The poet read it once, and then the host of the reading (Patricia Fiske I think), had the poet read it again but with different music. I closed my eyes for the second reading and found that it was a more enhanced experience.

    But like I said earlier, the reader alone is enough most times to keep an audience involved during the reading. If a reader genuinely feels that what they are reading is something worth sharing and I can tell through their voice, they will always have my full attention. Even if they are so nervous their voice cracks, they’ll still have it. It takes a lot of balls to get in front of people and read your words. That alone deserves the audience’s attention and respect.

    But as far as enhancing the experience, music is good. So are comfortable chairs, maybe even dancers…yes, scandously dressed dancers. I could sit through an hour of quantum physics with scandously dressed dancers in the background.

  7. Pingback: Poetry Slam: The New Rock Show? | We Put Words On Paper

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