Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Build Bridges with a Thank You

Do I sound like Emily Post if I ask poets to extend a special thank you to their reading hosts? And by that I mean to handwrite and mail a thank-you note.

You have given a featured reading or writing workshop at a poetry venue, bar, community center, school, library or bookstore. The host invited you, made all the arrangements, and drummed up an audience. The audience took time out from their schedules to give you their attention, and maybe approach you after for some chit-chat and shop talk. Some audience members even bought your book or chapboook, if you have one. And you likely did say a warm thank you to the host and the venue, perhaps as you opened your set and again personally before you left for the evening.

That's cool, and more than enough, right? Look at it this way. In the small world of poetry, there are few rewards. Organizing a poetry reading doesn't draw big bucks for any organization. The event definitely won't make its month, and it might even break it. Any effort to promote poetry, at least in today's environment, is a labor of love and based on a love of literature. Your host isn't making any (or much) money on you. And although you took center stage, your host stood behind the scenes. He or she needs strokes, recognition, gratitude and feedback. "What really happened that night, or was it just another reading among many?," the host may ask him or herself.

During the event, you may not have much time or chance to really pay attention to the person who invited you to read. And after a day goes by, you might give more thought as to what actually happened over the course of the evening, the kind of responses you got on your work, and what you may have discovered about your performance.

In these instant messaging days, sending your host a handwritten note about how the evening went for you makes a pronounced impression. Having been a sometime organizer and editor myself, I know that poetry promoters of all stripes often get little to no feedback after the door closes or an issue is mailed out. Is anybody out there, we ask. Your thanks and opinions will stand out and reassure, even if you point out some things that might need to be improved at a venue.

Mail your note within a few days and no longer than a week after the performance and include your personal literary business card, so the organizer knows how to contact you again. I'll write another post on creating literary business cards and websites sometime soon.

Even if you have some constructive comments to make after an event, don't burn your bridges, build them. When you add your personal touch in treating your reading hosts well with a handwritten note of sincere comments, it will likely result in being invited again next time, or even being referred to other venues looking for good talent.


Monday, May 22, 2006

What to Wear for Your Poetry Performance

Although this blog is mainly to showcase various journaling tips and suggestions, I devote a sizeable portion of my posts to the topic of writing poetry and how to survive as a poet.

When someone reads one of your poems on the printed page, all they see of you are black words on white paper. Don't, however, adapt this same color scheme for a live stage performance. Nothing plays more neutral on stage than white (according to my stage set teacher back when) and wearing a white shirt/blouse/t-shirt on stage is about as exciting as a glass of skim milk.

Ditto black or very dark pants. What is this, a noh drama? Are you a non-entity from the waist down? I don't care if you're fat, skinny, big-breasted or flat chested. You are putting yourself, your poems, your heart and your soul out there on stage, whether at a one-poem open reading slot or a 20-minute feature. So show your colors!

I don't mean Ringling Brothers colors, Halloween costumes or Vegas glitz. But show a little style. Your style. And if your ordinary style is a white t-shirt and torn jeans, then try out your fantasy style for one night. You're having fun. Wear a hat, a scarf, some wild earrings. Make your voice, presence and poetry memorable.

One of my books, "Swimmer's Prayer" carries the aqua mosaic pattern of a swimming pool on the cover. I'll sometimes match up my outfit with the same mermaid-aqua colors to carry out the theme.

If you're a mama falling out of her bra, you might want to bypass a low-cut top, and even wear a strategically tied scarf to fall in-between your breasts. Take a tip from the female flamenco dancers. Visualize how they tie shawls in front of themselves while dancing. They want their audiences to focus on their feet, dancing and costume, not on the jiggle show. And you want the poetry crowd to look at you while you perform, not at your breasts.

Flat-chested and self-conscious? A ruffled blouse and a structured jewel-colored velvet jacket conceals and feminizes at the same time. Adding casual pants and pointy shoes can make a hip contrast.

Guys with a big gut? The jacket thing works for you, too. But don't wear a v-neck white t-shirt underneath, especially if you're hairy. Think crew-neck and color.

Dressing up doesn't mean dressing conservatively or predictably, and dressing down doesn't mean you should reserve your imagination for your poems only.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Southwest Spas That Offer Journal Writing Sessions

The American Medical Association has released a study showing that keeping a journal can literally improve your physical health.

And a growing number of medical, destination and resort spas are incorporating journal writing seminars into their special event agendas.

This post explores spas in Arizona, Texas and Mexico that offer journal writing as a special feature on their calendar of events.

"It would be interesting to know how the science of journaling is connected to the body," says Nancy Linnon, who lectures on writing and health at Canyon Ranch Resort and Spa in Tucson, Arizona. "I haven’t found one person who said journaling didn’t help them."

Miraval: Life in Balance, Destination for Mind, Body & Spirit in Catalina, Arizona offers cooking demonstrations and nutrition counseling. They also provide courses on photography, journal writing and how to live a more serene life. Miraval was declared one of the top 40 spas in the United States by Conde Nast Traveler and #1 spa in the world by Travel & Leisure magazine.

Lake Austin Spa Resort
and its Lake House Spa in Austin, Texas sponsors speakers who present journal writing techniques as does Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico.


Monday, May 15, 2006

Journal Writing at a Spa

You can write in your journal anywhere just as you can live anywhere. But both are better at a spa. My husband and I spent the most fabulous weekend at the Sundara Spa in Wisconsin Dells for our 20th wedding anniversary. It was all very feng shui and more posh in a minimalist, native American way than any place I've ever stayed. It cost a few dollars, but for the special occasion that we were celebrating, it was well worth it. My husband was a little apprehensive about spending more than a few hours at a "spa," but ended up loving it and now keeps telling our friends about it. And I so inspired my sister-in-law that she is planning to spend her honeymoon there next month.

In between the stone cherry body wraps, aromatherapy massages, catching up with each other, enjoying the spa's delicious berry smoothies and natural food entrees that were arranged like artwork, the two of us were also able to volley some ideas for a creative piece I was working on. In such a relaxing atmosphere I couldn't help but direct some solid attention to having fun with a writing project -- actually a commissioned short play for children. And my fellow poet husband, whose opinion and feedback are more than valuable to me, was right next to me and very available.

If you're part of a long-time couple, you know that some weekends (and weeknights) can find the two of you often running in different directions (just to get things done) which often makes sitting down and talking "creativity" a precious commodity. A spa visit can be an opportunity to stop your crazy world and open it up (at least for awhile) to do exactly what you want to do.

Another inspiring spa is The Heartland Spa in Gilman, Illinois. It's actually a farm-like arrangement set in the middle of a cornfield, but has all the wondrous accoutrements, menus and services of a spa as well as endless yoga, aerobics and weight-training classes in spacious, well-appointed studios.

Every Saturday night, spa guests gather in the old world-style library around the fireplace hearth in leather chairs for the weekend's Heartland Institute. I have had the good fortune to present an hour-long journal writing seminar there last year and am returning in June to make an encore presentation. I'm not sure who has more fun, the guests at The Heartland Spa or being a presenter who's also treated like a welcome guest there. Midwest hospitality and friendliness at its best.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Poor Poet's Guide to Being a Performance Poet

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The Uptown Poetry Slam started in Chicago at the Green Mill Jazz Club, circa 1986, and soon became an international phenomenon. So anyone from this town who has anything to do with poetry does, or has done, performance poetry on stage. We need to set an example around here!

Otherwise, you might as well be some suburbanite sitting in a basement by yourself with a stack of envelopes and postage stamps, nursing a plastic tumbler of boxed wine.

Performing poetry doesn't mean just giving a poetry reading. It means breaking the fourth wall and leaping into the crowd with your poetry, if only figuratively.

How do you "perform" poetry or get into the "perfpo" scene? I started in church. Praying helps. But I also volunteered as a commentator and got lots of practice in front of my audience, i.e. the congregation, by presenting field-tested material, i.e. biblical passages.

Simultaneously, I also volunteered to read at least one of my own poems at every open mic reading I attended, which at one time, were legion.

I also took voice and breathing lessons at St. Nicholas Theater Company, in between serving as a volunteer there as well, though you may find this unnecessary.

Memorize at least one of your poems. A performance has to mean you lose the page. Once you get past dwelling on the words, you can move on to your oral and dramatic interpretation. The poem is then released from the mind to the body. The words go on automatic pilot and the actor or actress takes over to transform and deliver the words to the audience emotionally.

I eventually memorized 10 or more of my own poems and actually created a charm bracelet of these poems. My bracelet comprised silver charms I bought on ebay, each one symbolizing an important feature in a given poem, whether it be a sardine can, mermaid, owl, etc., which I attached to a slim bracelet, also purchased on ebay. I wore the bracelet to performances to remind myself on stage which poems I might care to perform, without the need to riffle through pages of a book or peek at an odd index card in case I went completely blank.

But the biggest breakthrough I experienced as a performance poet was to study different accents (there are tapes at the local library) and apply them to a couple of my poems. I read one poem set in Ireland with a Dublin accent. Hearing Frank McCourt read the entirety of "Angela's Ashes" on audio also helped me master some of the subtleties. For another poem, set in the south, I ply a Carolina accent. When I perform these poems, in particular, I really get outside of myself and feel as if I enter the world of the poem, in the purest and most complete sense. From the reactions I've received, I think the audience does, too. ◦