Craig Santos Perez on Bearing Gifts of Poetry and SPAM

Last fall, P&W co-sponsored a reading and workshop with poet Craig Santos Perez at University of California in Santa Cruz, where we have supported literary events since 2003. Perez also happens to be a past recipient of P&W’s California Writers Exchange Award, a prize that introduces promising California poets and writers to New York City’s literary community. We asked Perez how he approaches giving a reading.

Reading dos: Smile. Give thanks to the organizers, fellow performers, and the audience members. Drink water. Mark the pages you're going to read. Be prepared and organized. Be composed. Read your best work. Make eye contact with the audience. Share some background to the work. Read with passion.
Reading don’ts: Don't read too quietly. Don't shuffle through papers as if you just rolled out of bed. Don't say that you're going to read from your book that you don't like anymore because you wrote it a year ago. Don't talk for too long about the background of a poem. Don't drink water in the middle of a poem. Don't read drunk or high (unless that's part of your aesthetic). Don't go over time. Don't read too fast. Don't be hostile to the audience during Q&A. Do not not smile.

How you prepare for a reading: I prepare for a reading by figuring the best set list possible based on the time I'm given to perform, the venue, the organizer(s), the audience demographic, and my mood. I try to choose a mix of published and new work. I rehearse my performance beforehand, making sure I have the timing down. For my reading at UCSC, I also brought some gifts (free books and a can of SPAM) for the audience members who asked me questions during the Q&A.

Strangest comment you’ve received from an audience member: Last March I read at a social workers conference in Guam and was asked, by a much more experienced woman (as in thirty years older), "Are you married?"  I barely made it out of that room alive.

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why it works: I have different poems that could ignite very different pleasures. For the pleasure of laughter: "Spam's Carbon Footprint." For the pleasure of emotional resonance: "from Aerial Roots" (from my second book). For the pleasure of resistance: "from Achiote" (from my first book).

But this is not always true because you can never read to the same crowd twice. Which is to say, all crowds are different and unpredictable and a writer has to be flexible, especially writers of color. Sometimes a poem that gives a certain kind of pleasure to one audience (let's say, composed of all native peoples) may not give the same pleasure (or any pleasure at all) to another audience (let's say, composed of all white peoples).

How giving a reading informs your writing and vice versa: If I read new work, I always find little edits I should make. So in that sense, it's good for revision. The more readings I've done over the years, the more connected I feel to the tradition of oral poetics and spoken word. I find myself using more oral poetry techniques in my work than ever before.

What you probably spent your R/W grant check on: I spend all the money I receive from reading gigs to buy more poetry books!

Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

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Poetry and Spam

Very nice, the do's and don'ts of giving a reading. I especially liked what he had to say about his readings and how they connect him to the tradition of oral poetics. Being from outside the US, however, I don't know who he means when he refers to an audience of "all native peoples" vs. "all white peoples." Oh, and the hint of cougarism attributed to the older woman who asked him if he were married: these two comments smack of bigotry.

And Brian Jeffries Adds...

Very helpful and inspiring. I especially liked the parts about being prepared and not reading too quietly -- things I never knew you should do. Also, I appreciate the bit about not being hostile towards audience members. Very eye-opening. Oh, and drinking water! Another incredibly helpful tip. Thank you for this treasure chest of knowledge.

craig santos perez reading

This is a useful article. Thank you for publishing it. i did not find the comment about native peoples and white peoples offensive in the least, and I too live outside the U.S. This is a non-bigoted description of two different races within the U.S. Here in Mexico, one might describe different groups as indigenous and mestizo. For the reader (Santos Perez), his race is a fact, just as my Caucasian blood is a fact. One should always take their audience into consideration when planning a reading - age of group, geographic location, interests, race, etc. I do think it inappropriate for an audience member to ask if he's married or not. However, when asked such a question, the reader is free to say "no comment."


Do I detect a tiny note of sarcasm in your comment, BrianJeffries...?

Thank you for the tips and

Thank you for the tips and reminders, Craig. My first poetry collection comes out mid-2012; and I'll be making the rounds, so this is so very helpful and encouraging. Thanks a bunch for sharing.

hmmmm. . .

Woah! Talk about being hostile to your audience! I guess you can't see what color/gender/age we all are; perhaps this leaves you at a disadvantage? I am a middle-aged white woman who grew up reading Langston Hughes, and Sherman Alexie is my idol. News flash: not all whites are bigoted, just as not all Latinos are sexist. I also have the nerve to think I'm fairly sexy, unseemly though that may be (but I only pounce on cute guys). BTW, Poets Market 2010 has a much better article on readings, and not at all offensive. The only part I liked about yours was where you said not to read drunk or high, unless that was part of the aesthetic (like Burroughs?). That was funny. In a good way.

I am a white female poet who

I am a white female poet who also loves Langston Hughes and Sherman Alexie. I did NOT find this article hostile or offensive in any way. It was honest, funny, helpful, and succint. It is just plain true that different audiences will have different reactions. He never said that was a bad thing.

Focus, please.

It's one thing, folks, to comment on the interview--which was given in good faith--and quite another to make an issue out of one's own reaction. Nothing said here was intended to offend--and taking offense is not a sign of insight.