What made #PoetryLab a tremendous experience wasn't all its bells and whistles: the interactive Twitter feed from the audience, that sort of thing. Rather, it was something very simple: During a good share of the reading, we were allowed to see and read to ourselves each poem before the poet read it aloud -- on a large screen at the front, and in silence. Enough time was allotted that most people could read the poems twice before they dissolved into the voices of the live readers. Through poem after poem, we sank into the worlds they evoked in exactly the ways those worlds had originally been intended to be discovered on paper, and then into the poets themselves who described them to us aurally. Personally, I had never experienced this before except in workshops, which have always been my favourite kind of poetry event for this very reason.
The big problem at normal readings, to me at any rate, is that each word or phrase that's read attempts to crowd out or cancel the ones that came before it. So listeners are forced to continuously struggle to weld together two completely different things: the internal memory of what came before, and the present (and very external) voice, image and persona of the poet reading. So, unless it’s a fairly simple poem, the audience is unlikely to carry away more than a sample. Yet, #PoetryLab showed us how wonderful the results could be if the actual poem were somehow presented with the reading.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to make poetry readings more easily digested since the beginning of London Open Mic two years ago. Early on, I thought of having poets read twice. That could work, but only with certain, difficult poems. And only for some audience members. Then I thought of having readings videotaped, which we do; but watching the video is really a separate experience. What I'm trying to do now, for my own open mic reading, is to simply improve my reading ability: to read more calmly, more clearly, and with more care as to how the poem flows from my lips into the listeners’ minds. Like the leader of a group walking through a jungle, I try to keep looking back so I don’t lose too many people. And maybe that’s the only middle-ground there is.