Reading Poetry or Reading Prose: What's the Difference?

Last night I gave my first prose reading at Elliott Bay Book Company. I adore this bookstore and have been lucky enough to read my poems there several times. However, last night was different. Good or bad different? I don't know. Here are some things I noticed.

1. Reading prose requires more water. Now I get why authors sipping from their water glasses is not just for effect. Reading without a break for fifteen minutes is tough. Less breathing is allowed with prose.

2. With memoir there is nowhere to hide. OK so the stage is the same size no matter the genre, but it doesn't feel that way. Let me explain. My poems are never analogous with my life. Yes, I write about places I've lived and lovers I've had, but poetry allows for far more imaginative play than memoir. For me, poetry is closer to song than to a prose piece - even a lyrical prose piece. My travel essay last night concerned a love affair gone wrong. The first question from a gentle looking grandmother in the audience was "what happened next"?

3. Timing, timing, timing. Read only one essay and stay to your time? How does that work? When I prepare for a poetry reading I always allow for some improvisation. I prepare more poems than I will read so I can gauge the audience and mix it up depending on their mood. Not with prose. I had only one essay in this wonderful anthology, Best Women's Travel Writing 2011, and that was what I needed to fit into fifteen minutes. This meant reading the entire essay several times and then cutting out just a little to make the timing work. Thankfully, it did.

4. Do you have a good life? This is the second question that the very kind looking, grandmotherly lady asked me before she went out the door and into the night. Trust me, no one has ever asked me this at a poetry reading. Yet, because I read a travel essay about my own experiences, anything was fair game for the audience. I think of myself as a private person. Memoir makes this difficult. (And yes, today I like my life; it's a good one.)

5. Prose is like pecan pie. Poetry more like ice cream. I love pecan pie on Thanksgiving. The texture and unusual taste delights me, but then I'm done. Now ice cream, I could eat everyday. Ice cream comforts me with its endless variety. I feel as if I could make whole meals of  ice cream cones and shakes and sundaes without ever getting bored.

There are a few more readings in the works for Best Women's Travel Writing and I am happy to be part of a great group of women writers, but then I will return (mostly) to poetry. At the moment, however, I am trying to write about a Bosnian ice cream parlor. Oddly, I can't decide: poetry or prose?


  1. I wish I could've been at your reading! I love the points you make, though ... I have only ever read prose in public, both fiction and nonfiction. I know what you mean about having "nowhere to hide," though I have to say my fiction always draws concerned or sympathetic looks (then I explain it's not autobiographical, and people feel better). :)

    I look forward to reading your essay and hope to get to hear you read it one day. And re: the Bosnian ice-cream parlor...hmmm; I don't know! Poetry?

  2. Thanks, Midge -- I am now going to get to work on that piece (ice cream in Bosnia) that I've meant to do for at least four years. I've just discovered that they have a web site!


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