How to read a poem…

…in front of an audience of strangers after your friends signed you up for an open mic night

Most importantly, you suck in a breath. You hold the stand like an ex-girlfriend coming back to you—just far enough for her to catch your words without falling into the old cycle of things. Downcast eyes, scanning the scrawl of your journal, feeling the beat of each line pulsating throughout our veins—a secondary heart to one you gave away too freely in your youth. Let the air catch the nuances of your voice as you fabricate a lilt that isn’t part of your daily speech because you’ve been taught to read this way. Fabricate an emotional response to your own words, feel the artificial emptiness catch in your throat as you remember a memory you’re not too sure happened or was something you picked up from a television show in your youth. Twist your words into singular nooses on which to hang your audience. Introduce you piece. Talk about your inspiration. Admit that it’s unedited, but never confess how many times you wrote it down until it came out just write. Take in that breath. Close your eyes. And remember, none of it matters. What your teachers said. What your peers said. What you’ve come to believe what poetry means. Erase the rhyme schemes. Blackout the meter count. Drop the stranger’s voice. Just walk up to that mic and read.

A preface in the afterword

I started writing poetry in high school. Like most teenage hopeless romantics, I thought that the medium would somehow score me a girlfriend (and if you count Jeanna’s interest in me, it worked). What I wrote then pales in comparison what I’m capable of now.

A lot of my mistakes as youth stemmed from the fact that high school English classes are cancerous to adolescent creativity. Mind numbingly so. While several teachers growing up did support and encourage me on my writing quest, but they hammered the archaic idea of poetry into my skull and that was a disservice to me. If you’re into writing sonnets, haiku, and couplets, by all means.

Of course there were lessons on how to read a poem. To this day, I see new faces trying to mimic their high school teachers (and, sometimes, college professors) reading the lesson rather than the emotion. I hear all the right pauses and stresses the way teacher taught them to read. They take in the same breaths. They mimic the same airy voices. They’re shackled to the academic ideal for the shake of a flow.

My professors taught me tricks, sure. Taught me how to create a rhythm with my sentences. Taught me that poetry should snake itself into my prose. How to use sentence length for my own benefit. They opened the door to types of poetry that high school teachers hid away from us like our fathers’ back issues of Playboy.

I guess my advice is that people need to quit their shit. If academia is your thing, then that’s fine. It’s your thing. But it shouldn’t be everyone’s thing.

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