Writer in Residence

Practice in the mirror: "I don't answer that question," and other helpful phrases for poets

By Leah Horlick

Welcome to week two of Careful Inventory, poets and friends! Thanks so much for coming back or tuning in. As promised, today’s post is an opportunity for you to practice setting some boundaries that I’ve talked about in my last two columns. I have a list of phrases for you to consider practicing out loud before your next reading, and two short writing exercises to consider as well. For more context and a few examples of the situations in which you might want to apply this script, you can revisit my posts on online safety and performance boundaries.
Why am I asking you to consider saying these phrases out loud, at home, for practice? Because for many of us, it’s incredibly difficult to go from being in a vulnerable performance situation on stage, or a friendly conversation, or a bookselling exchange, to being this clear. It’s very hard on your body and is often subverting a couple of social norms at once. For me, becoming comfortable getting these words out, and hearing them in my own voice has helped my body remember them in an emergency. Think of this like a muscle that you have to build up. Many of us have spent our whole lives being conditioned out of being as direct as I’ll suggest you be here, and moving through that takes practice.
For some of these phrases, I recommend an accompanying action that drives the point home and gets you closer to safety—namely, walking away. Those particular sentences that, in my opinion, are best followed by an action have *and leave* written next to them as a prompt. For those of us who have strong cultural norms about “talking back,” never turning your back on other people, or walking away when someone is speaking to you, this might be extra challenging. Give yourself extra time. 
It’s safe to say you might feel guilty, ashamed, or just plain bad the first few times you try this at home. Take lots of breaks. It’s ok. You haven’t done anything wrong; you’re just preparing for an emergency. As with all my posts, these are also only suggestions—you get to protect yourself in the ways that work for you. Adjust or ignore whatever seems like it won’t work for you, or whatever might actually escalate a situation. Ask poets you trust and respect, who you work closely with, or on related subjects, for advice. I have kept a few please-and-thank-you’s in here that in many cases are totally worth leaving out, and I’m not going to tell you how to use volume or tone. Only you can decide those things. Please embellish, omit, adjust, and get creative with these however works for you, and in context. 
With all this in mind: if the idea of saying some of these phrases out loud feels too scary, activating, or physically unbearable for you, I totally get it. You don’t have to do this! Come back on Friday for my next post, where we’ll be taking a break from this topic and talking about money. If you feel strongly that you’d like to give this a try and the fear is in your way, let me share a trick that might make a difference: instead of practicing as if you are in a boundary-setting situation, practice as if you have food poisoning. Ew, Leah! Why?! I know, it’s gross! But this might take the pressure off you—would you ever judge someone for hustling out of a situation because they were about to be very, very sick? No! You’re also less likely to judge yourself, and feel lot more justified. It’s helped me sometimes and might help you; give it a try if you like.

Twenty helpful phrases for poets:
1. “That is not acceptable.”
2. “This is not the fee we agreed upon”
3. “I don’t talk about [that situation/that poem/the experiences behind the book] socially; you can read more about it in my book."
4. “I won’t be doing that tonight.”
5. “I can see that this is very meaningful to you. I can’t hear any more of this story tonight—I have to go now. Good night!” *and leave*
6. “You will not interrupt me; I will finish my sentence.”
7. “I will wait until you have stopped talking and then I will finish my poem.” (Yes, you can use this on stage or at a mic. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. Alternatively, you can try the classic “teacher just waits until it quiets down” approach.)  
8. “Take your hand off my [arm.] You will take your hand off my [arm.]”
9. “Oh, I don’t give hugs.” (You’re not obliged to offer an alternative form of physical contact here, but if you want to, offer a handshake or high-five or whatever you prefer instead.  And for those of you who are huggers: I recommend you have this phrase in your toolkit nonetheless. Someday, someone you really don’t want to hug is going to lean in for it.)  
10. “Could you please show me where the exit is?”
11. “Is there a stage door or a staff entrance I could use to leave the building? Could you please walk me there?”
12. “I need to sit down / a glass of water / a chair for my friend, please.”
13. “Here’s my [website or email]—follow up with me about this online. Thank you!” *and leave*
14. “Great talking to you! I’ll take the next few moments to prepare for my set.”
15. “That sounds like a good opportunity for someone else; thank you for thinking of me."
16. “Ah, I don’t answer that question. Do you have another?” (not limited to Q&A’s!)
17. “You don’t understand.” *and leave*
18. “This sounds more like a statement than a question.” (again, not limited to Q&A’s!)
19. “We can have the rest of this conversation [inside the venue/over email].”
20. “I am leaving now. Goodbye!” *and leave*
There are two more important topics I wanted to include in this post, but they are so personal I don’t feel I can rightly provide you with a script. What I can do, though, is give you a heads-up and two writing exercises that might help you develop your own verbal limits if you need them. It's time for Leah Horlick’s Two A’s in Advance: alcohol & attention.
I personally feel that we do a very bad job of preparing emerging poets for the centrality of alcohol and the emotional impact of attention from other people in our venues and events and culture. Most poetry readings take place at bars or restaurants, where liquor sales are a big source of revenue; they’re counting on the audience to buy drinks to support the cost of the event, especially if it was free. Most readings also take place in the evening and sometimes run late into the night, which culturally is drink-o-clock. And once you’ve read on stage at an event, people will be paying attention to you differently in the venue for the rest of the evening, even when you’re not at the mic. Both these things—and certainly in combination—have a pretty powerful effect on your emotions and your body. If this all seems hopelessly obvious to you, you can skip this part and come back on Friday. Many of you will already have transferable skills from other parts of your life that will support you here. But please remember that for many people who are super-new to poetry this isn’t common knowledge, and can be a source of deep, sensible anxiety for many reasons! Like with my earlier posts, I think the less we talk about things because it’s uncomfortable or awkward or "obvious," the more we hurt others and gatekeep the industry. Take a look at the exercises below, and get your notebook out if they seem useful for you to explore.
***If you have already been through a substance-related recovery process or supported a loved one in a similar situation, the following section may not be useful to you. You’ve probably got this covered. Much respect to you!***
Questions to consider in advance about how you’ll manage at events where alcohol is a factor:
- Do you have any religious or cultural considerations that affect how much or whether or not you drink? Are these things you want to share with people in public or not? Does that include friends, strangers, the audience, all, or neither? (You do not have to share this with anyone at a reading.)
-Is being around a certain amount of inebriated people hard for you, for any reason? Is there anything you already do to cope in these kinds of situations? If so, I bet whatever skills you already have will help you out at a poetry event. (You also do not have to share this with anyone at a reading.)
- How much can you drink before you start to blur your speech or walk differently? Will this influence what you do before or after you read? Best to know before you catch yourself off guard.
- Do you get a nervous stomach before you read? (Woe is us.) Does it keep you from eating before events? (Woe!) Does the venue have food you can afford and that you can actually eat after you read? Will this influence what you do before or after you read? Again, best to know ahead of time.
Questions to consider in advance about how you’ll manage attention from others at events:
- Is there anything you already do to manage stomach butterflies in your life? If so, it will definitely help you at a reading. If not, what might feel good or help you out? Plan ahead if you can.
-Do you experience attention on the Internet differently than attention in person? If you have a preference between the two, is there any way you can sway your life or career one way or the other?
- Do you love attention from others, and it floods you with the good chemicals? Do you hate it, and it floods you with fear and panic? Do you hate that you love it, and it will flood you with shame afterwards? Do you crave it, and make a lot of decisions accordingly? (None of these responses are bad or wrong! Poets run the whole gamut and more.) It's probably helpful to figure this out before any big readings you have booked. But if you’re not sure yet, that’s ok. Take notes as you go along. 
- How do you feel after a party or a big event? Sad that it’s over? Very lonely? So good that some of your decision-making skills are a little bit wonky because you love everyone and everything, so much? You might find that you feel the same way after a poetry reading. An emotional hangover is a real thing. (Is there a better name for this? Let me know.) Don’t be surprised if you might need a day or two to get back to whatever your “normal” is, depending on the size and stakes of the event.
That’s all! I’m not here to tell you what to do; I want you to have a sense of what you can anticipate. Like I said before: please don’t be cruel to yourself based on what you have or haven’t done in the past, or might encounter in the future.
Three posts in a row about boundaries! Phew! We’ll take a breather now so you can integrate and reflect. I’ll be back on Friday to talk a little bit about money, some resources that can support you, and some reminders for when you feel jealous, like a failure, or both. Thanks so much to everyone who has been reading along and sharing; it’s so good to be in conversation with you.  

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.