Raise your shields: performance boundaries for poets
By Leah Horlick
Thanks so much to everyone who reached out to say that Thursday’s post resonated with you. Today we’re building on our poet boundaries by extending them from the Internet to the stage—before, during, and after an in-person literary event of any size. This includes everything from slam competitions, to events with your university MFA or BFA program, tiny book clubs at your local library, and your very first reading with anyone really famous. Early on, I felt like every reading had to be fun and amazing, and if it wasn’t, it was somehow my fault. But most readings are extremely fraught in ways that have almost nothing to do with the fact that sharing your poems is scary. I would love for you to never have to use this information, but I really do believe we have to provide it to you.
If you are already saturated with this topic this week, consider coming back to this later to give your precious nervous system a break. Please promise me that you won’t ruminate on what you could have done differently in the past based on the suggestions I make here. Please don’t be hard on yourself if someone crosses your boundaries at a future reading and you can’t apply any of this in the moment. It’s ok. You’re never going to get this “right,” or be able to anticipate the actions of everyone around you, and neither will I. Depending on who you are, this article might bring up a lot for you from your past, so go easy on yourself. I know you did the best you could to protect yourself at the time. If you’re very new to the writing community, you might feel very angry or disappointed that this information is necessary. Take your time.
This topic is huge; to keep this post from getting too long, we’ll practice setting limits out loud, setting your own limits about alcohol, and preparing for attention from strangers on Monday. If you’re already starting to feel overwhelmed, remember that you probably already know all this stuff! You just might never have thought to apply it to a poetry reading. Remember what I said last time: where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The suggestions I’m making below will be very familiar to you if you’ve ever gone on a Tinder date with a stranger, gone to a party with a group of people you don’t know very well, and especially if you are someone who has to psych yourself up for a trip to the grocery store because of the racism or transphobia you experience daily. All the attention you are used to getting in public will happen to you at a poetry reading, times ten.
Please also remember what I said in my last post: If this all sounds paranoid, I’m so glad you’ve never had to think about it before. If you’re mad that the onus is on us to share these long posts about coping strategies instead of preventing inappropriate behavior in the first place, I hear that. I hate it too. But pretending that emerging poets do not need this information because it is upsetting to talk about, or awkward to teach, or because “it should go without saying,” is only hurting, not helping. Take what you anticipate needing, and tuck the rest away. If you start to feel shaky, sweaty, numb, or nauseated while reading, take a break. If you’ve already got a handle on this stuff, much respect to you—feel free to sit this one out and I’ll see you on Monday. Otherwise, trust your gut and let’s get going: before, during, and after.
Before the reading:
If you remember one thing from this article, I hope it’s this: Do whatever you can to avoid going to your own readings alone. This may mean you need to buy your friends a drink or pay for their bus fare, but it will be so, so worth it. Having a buddy means you have someone to keep an eye on you, your stuff, and to debrief with afterwards. If you do have to go to an event alone, get very good at pretending to take a fake phone call in case you have to get out of a situation fast. More on this later.
Consider preparing for a performance like a school field trip back in the day. Bring a nut-free snack, a water bottle, any medication you need (especially if you have allergies and the venue serves food), and a sweater in case it’s cold. I have never been sorry to have these things on me. If I haven’t needed them in the moment, they have often helped someone else.
That said, approach every venue assuming there won’t be a locked place for you to safely store anything. There hardly ever is. Plan to carry everythingon you (or ask a friend for help), and do not put anything down unsupervised anywhere.
Bring some way of paying for cab fare. Cab fare?! you may say. What kind of luxury is this, Leah Horlick?! I know. I get it. But just try to bring it. Even if you have a car. One day, when you have a really terrible reading and you need to go home right now, but you’re not sure if you can manage to drive, or handle public transit, or wait in the dark for your friends to pick you up, you will be so, so glad for that cab fare. If you file writer taxes (more on that in the coming weeks), save your receipt and write it off as an expense.
Please do not go to events when you have a cold or the flu, even if you think you are not contagious anymore.The times I have done this, I have invariably disrupted the event and put myself and others at needless risk.
Are you having a brutal chronic illness flare, or a really bad mobility day? Don’t hurt yourself going to the reading because you feel obligated to the organizers. Organizers know how to manage and shouldn’t be angry with you. The last thing you want is to push yourself too hard and somehow end up stuck with an ambulance bill that your reading fee won’t even begin to cover. To make it possible for chronically ill artists to stay home without losing out on opportunities and income, those of us who are organizers must make sure that there are accessible, virtual event options available after COVID so that sick and disabled people can perform comfortably from their homes.
If you feel that you need it, I give you permission to be ruthless about the way you are introduced at events. I feel very strongly that introducing someone else is an act of hospitality. It is a reasonable expectation for your host to get it right. If you feel shy about setting yourself up for success here, let me help you. I am your imaginary event friend. Say “Leah told me I should make sure my name/the name of my publisher/my book’s title is pronounced correctly—let me say it out loud for you before we start.” (Ideally hosts will ask you for this themselves, well ahead of the event. Of course the onus should not be on you.) Please make sure that hosts read the actual bio you gave them, including any awards and your qualifications. Embellishing a bio with some love, a few appropriate compliments, and personal context is very standard, so don’t be alarmed if they go off-book a bit. But “Here’s [so-and-so], they are hot!” is not an introduction, unless that’s what you handed in for your bio. Don’t be afraid to re-introduce yourself when you get to the mic if you need to.
During the reading:
You made it to the event! Well done. You have to use the microphone while you read, even if you think you have a naturally loud voice. This is not the flex you think it is. Don’t make Deaf and hard of hearing audience members identify themselves to you by asking if everyone can hear you. Other related notes: Don’t put your mouth on the mic. (Don’t think about this too much—blech.) If you have never adjusted a mic stand before, show up a little early and ask the event organizer politely if they could show you how. It’s a great confidence boost and will save you time and stress on stage.
A poetry reading is what my mom calls a “space of high disclosure.” (Thanks mom! She gets it.) People attend for many reasons: they love poetry, their friend is reading, and/or they are getting some sort of benefit from being around a great deal of Public Emoting. This is not a bad thing. But it does mean that there are people in the audience who may be looking for things that you are not expected to provide. These things include long conversations, a listening ear, free advice, and attention. These things are not your job, so it is in your best interest to become an absolute shark at leaving a conversation swiftly. Like I mentioned earlier: pretend to answer a phone call. If you were able to bring a buddy with you, pick a hand signal or a code word that means “Come and get me out of this situation right now,” and use it. You are performing; you are at work, and you have to protect your energy and personal space and time. We’ll practice this kind of thing in detail next week.
I really, strongly discourage you from leaving an event alone at intermission. I totally get it if you need some air, or some quiet, or a cigarette. But bring someone with you if you can. If you must leave alone, tell someone where you’re going and when they can expect you back. The longer you spend outside by yourself, the higher the chances of people asking you to “come on a little walk” to “talk about a really interesting project” because you “seem like a great fit.” This is a trap. Do not go. Or people might want to “give you some feedback,” or “share something personal with you” because “your work really resonated with them,” but just a little further down the alley, or in their car across the street. This is a trap. Do not go. We’ll practice some things you can say in these situations—which are absolutely not your fault—next week.
I’ll pause here to give us a little break in tone. Take a deep breath. Shake it off a little. Get ready to meet my ridiculous good friend/nemesis, Stage Brain. I am not a neurologist, so I do not know exactly what causes Stage Brain. It has something to do with blood sugar, stimuli, and adrenaline. It might kick in before, during, or after an event. (I have it even after online readings.) Stage Brain feels a little different for everyone; perhaps you have been blessed and it will not happen for you! Stage Brain makes me hot-cold all at once, dizzy, and super hungry. I cannot count the amount of times I have accidentally knocked heads with people, tripped over objects in plain sight, or crashed into furniture because of Stage Brain. (Farewell to your illusion of Leah Horlick, Graceful Swan! It is a lie! Stage Brain reveals all.) Please make sure you breathe deeply, move a little more slowly than usual, eat your emergency snack, and watch your step during an event or Stage Brain will triumph.
That was a good little break. Now back to the serious stuff: You don’t have to do question & answer sessions at your readings. I think I maybe did one Q&A with For Your Own Good before I decided “no thank you, never again.” (Eternal thanks to Amber Dawn for helping me sort out so, so many difficult decisions related to the in-print and public presentation of that book.) You don’t even have to hang around after events to answer informal questions. You can just go home! It’s ok!
After the reading:
Get creative so you can avoid going directly home after events if possible. (Thanks to Charan P. Morris for this tip back in the day at Lambda!) If you live alone, stop and get a warm drink on the way, or sit on your stoop for a little bit before going inside. Make sure you have something sweet planned for when you do get home: something you like to eat, or your coziest sweatpants. Even if you are very introverted, going from being in a crowd to being alone is a pretty intense sensory adjustment for your body, and it can leave you feeling very fatigued and disoriented, especially if you were performing. Pace yourself.
This particular suggestion is for my beloveds who are very likely to experience street harassment: I know it’s uncomfortable to think about, but you look different after performing. You are probably wearing an even-more-amazing-than-usual outfit. You probably smell a little bit like fear, nerves, and/or power. You might be a little bit wide-eyed because you are overstimulated from the stage lights, or maybe you’ve been crying because of some great poems. People who want power over you can sense this combination of states, and they are watching for it, even during the day. Put that icy OR “super neutral” OR “soft and non-threatening” face on—whatever you usually have to do, as you know best—and prepare to face more negative, unwelcome attention than usual on the way home. I hate this. I’m so sorry. I would rather you know in advance. Call a friend on the way, or get your keys out. You know the routine.
If you are going out with colleagues after a reading, please tell someone where you are going. Tell someone even if you are going out afterwards with people you think you can trust, including colleagues and instructors from your program, and the regulars from the open mic. Ideally, tell a friend who is not a writer. If you think you are “too old” for this advice for some reason, you are not. Please make sure the people you love know where you are and with whom.
Remember that secret notebook I asked you to bring? Now’s the time. I want you to have a long and storied poetry career, during which you appear at a lot of events with a lot of different people. The trouble with this is you will never remember all the many people you performed with. There are just too many poets. If someone treated you badly at a reading, write their name down as soon as you get home. Poets are bad archivists; you will never be able to find that event poster again, and in five years when you get a similar booking that gives you a bad feeling, you don’t want to be stressing about who exactly it was who said that awful thing to you. If you’re not comfortable with a notebook, use an extremely password-protected document. If you are using a notebook, hide it.
*** Hey teachers using this content—thanks for being here! This upcoming last point is specifically directed at adults and may not be suitable for discussion in your classroom. You might consider leaving it as a personal reflection exercise for your students instead. My work for Open Book is suitable for readers of all ages, but that does not mean it is necessarily right for your group or context. Thanks for all that you do; I hope this has been useful to your instruction thus far! ***
Finally, keep a close, loving eye on your poet friends who are single. Wow, Leah, didn’t think we were going there today! What does this have to do with anything?! Hear me out. At the end of the day, many things in life and the arts are just plain easier, gentler, and more enjoyable if you have a loving partner. Performances and readings are usually one of those things. Having a partner means there is at least one person who is reliably available to come pick you up, who you can trust to hold you while you sob about how awful that reading was, or intervene when you are being creeped on. Can your friends do this for you? Yes, totally! Have many friends done this for me at various points of my own life? Yes, thank you darlings! Yes, I know romantic relationships are heavily prioritized over others, blah blah blah. But what people usually fail to consider for artists who don’t have partners is the grief and exhaustion that comes with figuring out who that supportive person will be for you, every dang time, because you will have to ask, and plan ahead, and ask again, every dang time you have an event. And honestly, sometimes you just don’t want it to be a friend.
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This won’t be a reality for everyone. But it was very real for me at one time, and it somehow felt ungrateful or unprofessional to talk about (even though it’s not), and so I want to give you a heads-up. For me, coming home alone, yet again, after yet another packed reading from my book about surviving intimate partner violence, while well-meaning people in couples or poly families told me “But you have so many other kinds of love in your life!” not only made things harder, but actively made me feel worse, less inclined to perform, and less likely to tell anyone when I was having a hard time. Reading poetry is vulnerable. (Ugh!) Being vulnerable in public, without a safe home base where you feel desirable and cared for, while fending off sexual harassment from the same people who purport to “love your powerful, necessary work,” is traumatic. This is not a new or original thought! Trans women and Indigenous women in the arts have been talking about this forever; listen up and believe them.
For all you wonderful single poets: You are, unfortunately, seen as available to an audience in ways that clearly partnered poets are usually not. Not just romantically—but perhaps also easier to emotionally manipulate, more willing to work for free, or that you somehow have more time on your hands. Gross! None of this is true, of course. Keep your head up. You are probably going to have to work harder at some of this boundary stuff. The noted absence of a partner (especially, but not necessarily, a husband or boyfriend) is perceived as an opportunity for people to test your boundaries at any very social, tense, emotional event where there is a lot of drinking (like I said, more about that on Monday). People are checking and will get nosy. It’s uncomfortable. You’re not making this up.
I am not saying that you have to have a romantic partner to experience safety as a poet at events! That is not true. I am not saying poets are entitled to romantic or sexual attention or companionship because our lives are somehow harder! That is not true. I am not saying that if you are married, no poet is ever going to harass you! That is patently untrue and I’m sorry. Partners of poets, you have to keep a loving eye on your people too. I am saying that performing for an audience is a kind of intimacy, and relationships are about many kinds of intimacy, and pretending that there isn’t an intersection between these things will hurt you and your friends.
Gosh, I could talk about all this for ages. I hope we keep talking about it when we go back to in-person events. It’s a lot though, isn’t it? To keep this manageable, I’ll stop here—you might already be feeling overwhelmed, or heartbroken, and that’s ok. Things are really hard right now as it is! We’re building capacity, we’re not going to get it right all the time, and we need rest. Don’t be mean to yourself based on what you have or haven’t done in the past. You’re doing great. I can’t wait to see you perform someday. Take a rest, and I’ll see you on Monday.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Leah Horlick is a writer and poet who grew up as a settler on Treaty Six Cree Territory & the homelands of the Métis in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Her long-awaited third collection of poems, "Moldovan Hotel," is available now from Brick Books. Her first book, Riot Lung (Thistledown Press, 2012), was shortlisted for a 2013 ReLit Award and a Saskatchewan Book Award. Her second collection, For Your Own Good (Caitlin Press, 2015), was named a 2016 Stonewall Honour Book by the American Library Association. She is also the author of wreckoning, a chapbook produced with Alison Roth Cooley and JackPine Press. She lived on Unceded Coast Salish Territories in Vancouver for nearly ten years, during which time she and her dear friend Estlin McPhee ran REVERB, a queer and anti-oppressive reading series. In 2016, Leah was awarded the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers. In 2018, her piece "You Are My Hiding Place" was named Arc Poetry Magazine's Poem of the Year. She lives on Treaty Seven Territory & Region 3 of the Métis Nation in Calgary.