Saturday, November 13, 2010

Unconventional Poetry Reading Opportunities

This seems to be the season for poets to be on the move going hither and yon for readings; Sandra Beasley always makes travelling for poetry promotion sound heavenly (go here for an example). Sandy Longhorn has a great post about her recent poetry reading and how it came to be. Once upon a time I would have felt jealous. Now that I've had some seasons of doing my own poetry readings, I'm less jealous. After all, I could go on the road to read too, if I wanted to do a bit of organizing.

When Pudding House published my first chapbook in 2004, I knew that I wanted to get out there and promote it. I wasn't exactly sure how. So, I thought about where I have friends and family--I could travel to promote my book, but cut down on expenses by staying with friends and family. Added bonus: I got to see friends and family, and they were happy to come be part of the audience. It's comforting to know that there will be friendly faces in the audience.

And then, once I'd chosen locations, there came the hard part. How to find reading opportunities? I Googled the most obvious possibilities: reading series and book festivals. I realized that almost every community seems to have some kind of book festival. And so, I got to the hard work of applying.

I applied all sorts of places, even places where I was fairly sure I wouldn't be accepted, like the National Festival of the Book on the Mall in D.C. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? I had always assumed that smaller, regional book festivals accept everyone since they have so many participants, but based on my limited experience, that doesn't seem to be the case. But my searching for book festivals led me to some other possibilities.

When I was at USC, the Women's Studies department was always doing interesting things, so I wrote to all the Women's Studies departments that worked for me geographically. That search didn't lead me to readings, but it led me to non-university women's centers, which did lead to a great opportunity.

I discovered that the Women's Center of Jacksonville was having an art exhibition that tied in to the themes of my chapbook. And so I wrote them and asked if they had thought of having a literary component. They wrote back to ask if I'd come to do a poetry workshop and said they would also organize a reading, which I'd share with some Jacksonville writers. I said sure. It was a fabulous week-end.

Many blogger poets lately have been having cool sounding readings in conjunction with art museums (read Kelli Russell Agodon's post about the event here and Susan Rich's post about creating the event here). I've always thought that museums made natural partners for poets. I'd like to begin thinking about some kind of proposal for a local museum.

I also wrote to every state that has a Center for the Book. Here in my own town, the Florida Center for the Book has offered amazing readings and workshops, like the ones I attended with Marge Piercy in 1999 and in 2001, Richard Jones. During these times of budget cuts, those centers might be grateful for a local poet who can organize a multi-poet reading.

I also thought about schools, which have been the primary places where I've seen poets. So I wrote to a variety of English departments, which didn't net me any invitations. I wasn't surprised in a way; after all, back then, a lot of English departments had the kind of budgets where they could invite more famous poets.

Of course, I should have really written to people that I knew, but most people that I knew weren't teaching Creative Writing classes. How could I be a visiting poet for my colleagues that taught Composition or Literature?

An experience I had later answered that question. In 2007, I had a reading at an arts festival at my college (in Newberry, South Carolina) and then 5 days later, I needed to be at Lutheridge (near Asheville, NC). Obviously, I didn't want to drive back to Florida and then north again in two days, but I felt like I needed something to justify staying. So my grad school friend and I collaborated.

She was teaching a British Literature survey class, the second half that covers the time period from the eighteenth century to the present. Some of my poems revolved around literary figures like Keats and the Wordsworths. So, I did a hybrid kind of presentation: I read my poems, and I did a bit of teaching about the biographies and the literature that inspired the poems. I handed out my poems and the poems that inspired them. It was a great experience. The students stayed alert and interested. They had questions. They said that I had made them think about literature in a whole new way--but of course, they were Southerners, raised to be polite. Still, it was a great experience, which has made me wonder about other ways to be a visiting poet than the traditional Creative Writing classroom experience. If we've been to graduate school and been the least bit social, we probably have a network of friends teaching a variety of classes across the country. When I taught a heavy load, I'd have been happy to host a writer friend who was willing to cover his/her own expenses (since I've never taught at places that had a budget for bringing in outside speakers). And students benefit from the experience in ways we can't always anticipate.

I've noticed that some academic conferences have become more open to literary readings. In 2005, a group of us read work that used the history of the early U.S. as inspiration. We read at the annual conference of the Society of Early Americanists, a group of historians. When I first started thinking about reading at conferences, I thought about major conferences, like the AWP. But the world is full of regional conferences, many of whom would be open to all sorts of possibilities, if you can put together a proposal. This website has tons of academic conferences which are looking for proposals; it's almost overwhelming.

Now the clear problem with my proposals is that they don't necessarily pay. But I didn't go into poetry hoping to be rich; that's why I've continued to stay in academia. I've found that if I have a poetry reading lined up or a paper presentation, it's easier to get time off from work; you might even work for a place that would pay your travel expenses. But even if you don't have a travel budget at work, much of this travel could be tax deductible, depending on how you organize your financial life.

I know that poetry won't pay the mortgage, but I'm happy to have it in my life. I see myself as sort of a poetry Jehovah's Witness, traveling the country with fliers that I press into strange hands, reminding people of a mystical reality shimmering just beyond the horizon of daily life.


Sandy Longhorn said...

Great details here. Thanks!

Kristin said...

Thanks for inspiring me with your post.