Thursday, October 07, 2004

Reading the Room: On Set-Selection in Performance Poetry

"WHAT ARE YOU doing?" __l_i_ asked, as I scribbled on a sheet of paper, scanning the audience of the 9/11 reading at the Carter Center.

"Deciding what poems I'm gonna do in my set."

"But aren't you up next?"


He scrunched his brow. "Isn't it a little late for you to be doing that?"

It is a question I have asked myself, oh, probably a couple of hundred times. That would be roughly the number of times that I've been a featured performer to this point in my 9-year literary career. You'd think something like Wisdom might set in and teach me a lesson - that I'd grow weary of the frantic last-minute scrambling moments before taking the stage. But if you are a poet, or any speaker/performer for that matter, who frequently presents in public, then you already understand, if you desire to be effective, some degree of uncertainty is part of the territory.

Outsiders may perceive it as a lack of preparedness, of irresponsibility - may chalk it up to the flighty nature of artists. But I assure you there is a method to my madness! It boils down to what is the cardinal rule in effective communication. Whether preaching to Pentacostals or reciting poetry to college faculty; whether singing for the Pope or crooning at a New Orleans speakeasy; whether writing an article for Hustler magazine or an essay to a graduate admissions committee, it is essential to know your audience.

Sure, if you're performing for a niche audience such as the local NAACP chapter or a Women's History Month event, then it is, of course, possible (and advisable) to research the audience and preselect a set. But most audiences are not so specialized, and you really have no idea who you will be reading for until you arrive at the event. Further, even when describing their predicted audience to you in advance, in this age of political-correctness, event organizers are sometimes not so straightforward, leaving you in a situation which was not quite what you bargained for.

So, through my years of performing for random selections of judges at National Poetry Slams in Chicago, Providence, and Seattle, and while performing at dozens upon dozens of other more specialized venues across the country, I have fine-tuned a skill for "knowing your audience" on an impromptu basis. I call it 'Reading the Room.'

But before I go any further, let me provide some examples of the rather unlikely places I've wound up reading poems to an audience that, in some way, was not quite what I'd expected. Hopefully, this will illustrate why reading the room - as opposed to approaching a gig with an etched-in-stone set list - is such a priceless skill. Just imagine yourself in each of the following situations, five minutes before going on-stage:

  • a redneck bar in Americus, GA
  • an assembly of high schoolers in Pittsburgh, PA, their parents frantically removing them from school on September 11th, just after the 3rd plane has crashed in a field less than 60 miles away
  • the out-to-humiliate-you producers of the game show, Weakest Link, in Hollywood, CA
  • a Christian singles conference
  • an Atlanta hip-hop club, where there has been a scheduling mix-up resulting in the deejay abruptly yanking the music, clearing the dancefloor, and contemptuously shouting at clubgoers, Sit down, now we're gonna hear some poetry.
  • a room of 1st graders at Queen of Angels Catholic school in north Atlanta
  • the Artistic Director and Assistant Artistic Director of Atlanta's Alliance Theatre
  • a Republican fundraiser (billed as a My South party) in NY, NY during the 2004 Republican Natl Convention
  • following a 50+ member gospel choir at the 2004 Turner Trumpet Awards Black Cultural Explosion in an event featuring former member of Arrested Development, Dionne Ferris; comedian, Ricky Smiley; opera singer, Djore Nance; jazz violinist, Karen Briggs; and Gospel singer, Smokie Norful

Now, hopefully you understand that it would be the equivalent of performance suicide to take the same 15-minute set of poems and read them to all of the aforementioned rooms. Obviously, what works in a captive room of first graders at a Catholic school is not best-suited for an audience of liquored-up hip-hoppers whose groove has been disrupted by your unexpected poetry performance.

So, what exactly am I doing when I am reading the room? Well, I am doing the antithesis of what I preach in the majority of my own work: I am stereotyping.

I survey the room by demographic - race, age, gender, religion, education, class, sexual orientation, etc. Then, I base my set selection on, say, 75% what I think will make the audience comfortable in subject matter and diction and, say, 25% of what I think will make them squirm or stretch. My personal goal is to make audiences, after one of my performances, see - 1) poetry, 2) Black people, and 3) themselves - in a new light.

But first of all, let me say that the wider your range of material, the greater your possibility for success. And by wide range I mean by subject matter as well as by level of diction. If most of your material, for example, bashes women, then chances are you're not going to be very effective at an AKA sorority luncheon. If all of the poems in your repertoire are written in metered Elizabethan English, then chances are you won't be very captivating to a classroom of inner-city 6th graders. Or if your poems are colored with four-letter words, then you're probably not going to be reinvited to read at the nunnery. You may think that these things are common sense, but many of you readers have seen, with your own eyes, the number of otherwise 'educated' poets, who make even wronger badder less sensible choices.

So, here, I'll present you a short list of poems in my repertoire to show how I make the decisions whether or not to perform them, as I 'read the room' at a venue:


I perform this poem whenever I'm in a majority Black room, in a church, or in a primary/secondary school. Because of its conversational diction, it is easily accessible for younger and less poetry-savvy audiences. I do try to limit performing in Atlanta because everyone's seen it before. If I am in the South outside of Atlanta, I perform it for any audience, regardless of race because of its Southern themes.

I very rarely perform it in universities or other quiet audiences where the crowd is very literate because it's been my experience that these audiences are put off by the melodrama of my performance. Further, academic types view this piece in the way that adults view Now&Laters or Jolly Ranchers: Anything that sugary couldn't possibly be good for you.

"The Dreamlife of Dr. Bledsoe's Inner Pickaninny"

I perform this poem when the audience is very literate - universities, bookstores. Ideally, the audience is racially mixed. Because it blatantly confronts Black stereotypes, people (Black and White) uncomfortable with themselves don't know whether it's okay to laugh. I enjoy the tension it creates.

"Genealogy of the Byrd Family"

I consider this poem the most theatrical in my repertoire, so I very rarely perform this poem at readings with academics. Also, I rarely perform it in Atlanta, unless it is an audience of mostly people who've never seen me before. I also tend to perform in medium-to-larger spaces with audiences of 100 or greater because of the exagerrated body movements. I prefer to perform this when a room's natural acoustics are good, so that I can be off-mic. The ideal space is a black box theatre.

"Urban Percussions"

The most stereotypically 'Black spoken word artist'-ish piece in my repertoire, I rarely perform this poem because it is over 4 minutes long. When I do perform it, it tends to be one of two audiences: 1) predominantly Black males adolescents who think Trick Daddy should be Atlanta's poet laureate (to show them there's another way), or 2) people like me - Black and White twenty- or thirty-somethings who grew up with A Tribe Called Quest stickers plastered all over their high school lockers.

"Conjuring the Whole Note"

I tend to perform this in very quiet rooms, mostly among academics when I don't feel like rocking the boat. The narrative is loose and the subject a bit more abstract. If I perform it in a room for a general audience, it is one of the poems I typically use to make them stretch.

"Elegy for 7 (the Space Shuttle Poem)"

Because this poem requires a lot from me in performance, I tend to perform it when the audience is giving me a lot of energy. Also, since I don't perform it often, I tend to reserve it for medium-to-large audiences - say, 100 or greater. I prefer that the room is mixed by race, gender, and age - that the audience somehow reflects America. The ideal space is a black box theatre.

"The Tragic Mulatto, or One-Drop Rules Hits the Silver Screen"

I perform this only in racially-mixed rooms because it makes everyone uncomfortable. The older the crowd, the better - particularly if they have memory of separate-but-equal facilities. This is another poem to make audiences stretch.


I never perform this poem for young audiences. I like to perform it most in a racially-mixed mature audience because it places the Black woman on a pedestal, and I want the whole world to see.


Here, in a tribute to old-school hip-hop I'm actually rapping! I reserve this for young audiences and 30-40 year-old audiences. Ideally, there are two microphones and I call someone from the crowd to beatbox on-stage. I would never perform it for an audience of serious hip-hop heads for fear I'd be laughed off the stage! Because it includes audience participation, it's mainly for fun.


So, the next time you're at an event and see a poet administering a cure for insomnia, or any other performer losing his audience, make the world a better place and pass along this tip:

Read the room.


Ivy Dillinger said...

Well said. Well done.

BLUE said...

sounds like perfect course material to me! (lol) light! ~BLUE