Hosting a literary reading? Here’s poet Richard Allen Taylor on the fine points of being the emcee.
Emcees worry about making the colossal gaffe. Just ask Steve Harvey, who famously announced the wrong winner in the Miss Universe pageant. A friend of mine, John B, made a less colossal mistake when he served as emcee for his organization. He started to say, “Let’s give Betty a warm round of applause,” but tried to switch over to “Let’s give her a hand.” The crossed wires of tongue and brain resulted in giving Betty “a warm round of hand,” which had the audience snickering and staring at their palms, trying to imagine how that bizarre suggestion might work out for Betty. As good emcees do, both Harvey and John B. recovered; they apologized and moved on.
So, you’ve been tapped as the Master of Ceremonies—the “emcee”—at your group’s open mic poetry reading. Maybe you’ve done it before, perhaps many times. Maybe it’s your first time. Whether serving as emcee is routine for you or new and intimidating, be assured, you will make mistakes, and your response should be, like Steve Harvey and John B., to apologize and move on. Usually, the audience will understand and sympathize.
Being an emcee boils down to two key objectives: (1) control the flow of the meeting; keep the program moving according to plan (or script), and (2) create a welcoming, enjoyable atmosphere. It’s really a matter of melding the “etiquette” of meeting leadership with common sense and the drive to get things done on time and in an orderly fashion.
One of the more important duties of the emcee is to introduce readers. Here’s an outline of the technique I prefer:
- From the mic (or the stage, podium or lectern), introduce the reader by name; use a brief bio if time permits. If the person is the “featured reader,” use a longer introduction. Avoid making any derogatory jokes or remarks about the person being introduced or any member of the audience.
- Lead the applause as the reader approaches the mic.
- Don’t leave the mic “empty.” Hold your position until the reader arrives. An empty stage may create unwelcome tension.
- Offer a brief greeting, and a handshake unless it would be awkward to do so.
- Adjust the mic position if needed for the reader’s height.
- Step aside and take a seat near the mic. This will allow you to quickly re-take control of the meeting when the reader is finished.
- Lead the applause as the reader returns to his or her seat.
Yes, you might be accustomed to a less “formal” approach. I’ve seen open mic events where the emcee sat in the back of the room and announced each reader, or drew three names at a time, read them aloud, and counted on the readers to make their way to and from the mic without the fanfare of individual recognition or welcoming. These methods work, but to me seem less “personal” than the process described above. If you must use a shortcut method, you still can create that very important “welcoming atmosphere” by greeting participants as they arrive and by thanking them for sharing their poems at the end of the program.
Do well, and the audience will appreciate your efforts. You might even get a warm round of hand.
Richard Allen Taylor is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Armed and Luminous (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2016). Taylor’s poems, articles and reviews have appeared in Rattle, Comstock Review, The Pedestal, Iodine Poetry Journal, Wild Goose Poetry Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Toastmaster Magazine and South Carolina Review, among others. Taylor currently serves as review editor for The Main Street Rag and formerly co-edited Kakalak. After retiring from his 44-year business career in 2013, Taylor earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte in 2015.
The ice cream “shoppe” was as frozen as its treats, with wooden booths and swivel seats at the counter. Clean-shaven waiters, dressed in white aprons and hats, looked like they’d stepped out of that old Michael J. Fox movie where the guy time-travels to 1955.
The phone booths at the rear added retro ambiance. Hallie had never used one, but she had a swift, sharp image of being little, arriving at a train station and watching as her mom tried to make a call at a public phone. The phone swallowed her last quarter without connecting, and Hallie’s mom beat the receiver against it like she was killing a cockroach. She spat out a phrase Hallie had never heard before and didn’t understand: “rat bastard.” Something else Hallie hadn’t understood: why the urgent visit to her grandparents, why it turned into weeks, then the summer. Why, in September, she was the new kid in school, and her dad was a long-distance voice, a check in the mail.
“Take my picture,” Hallie said to Kathryn to shake the memory. She handed over her phone, picked up the receiver, and feigned a conversation with someone on the other end.
“Cute,” Kathryn said. “Make it your profile pic.”
“Want one of you?” she asked. But it was a reedy voice on the other end, not Kathryn, that replied, “Want one of me what?” Hallie dropped the receiver like a dead mouse.
“Dude? What happened?”
They’d only been dating for three months, and Hallie had done her best to hide her weird-girl shit. Like abandoning the OCD thing where she lined up her ones and fives and twenties in descending order, Washington and Lincoln and the guy on the twenty all facing the same direction. And bodily stuff? She hadn’t cried in front of Kathryn yet, and she always clicked the bathroom door demurely behind her.
“Nothing,” Hallie said, laughing it off. “Maybe a cobweb. This thing’s almost as old as my grandpa.”
Kathryn left for the restroom, and Hallie eased herself into the booth again, unfolding the door. She avoided her reflection in the shiny chrome of the coin return.
Cancer invaded his lungs a year ago, and he went fast. Her mother called to tell her she’d seen the obituary, but neither of them went to the rat bastard’s funeral. Hallie understood that he’d cheated on her mother with two paralegals at work, married one of them. Among his survived-by’s, the obituary listed two additional children, phantom brothers in another state.
Still, part of her remembered something else. A trip alone with him to a park. A merry-go-round pony he hoisted her onto. A hot fudge sundae he let her order, which ended up mostly on her face. A wet napkin wiping her cheeks. “Evidence,” he whispered with a wink.
“Dad?” she said into the dead receiver.
Paula Martinac is the author of a book of short stories and four novels, including 2017’s The Ada Decades – set in Charlotte from 1947 to the present – and the Lambda Literary Award-winning Out of Time. Her fifth novel, Clio Rising, about a young woman who becomes the companion to a writer of the “Lost Generation,” will be published by Bywater Books in 2018. Her short stories recently appeared in The Raleigh Review, Main Street Rag, and Minerva Rising. She also has written and published three nonfiction books; authored a handful of plays that were produced in Pittsburgh, New York, and other places; and co-wrote a full-length screenplay. She teaches in the undergraduate creative writing program at UNC Charlotte and is on the faculty of Charlotte Lit’s Authors Lab.
Paula teaches “Fiction in a Flash: Exploring Micro Narrative Forms,” Wednesday, Feb. 21, 6-9pm, at Charlotte Lit. Go here for more info and registration.
In the Evening We Shall Be Examined on Love
~ St. John of the Cross
That line was enough to propel Thomas Centolella into his moving poem of that title, and has been enough to stay with me as an iconic constant, a touchstone that I come back to like being aware of the intake of breath. I suppose I could do worse than question how I’ve scored in the school of love. Have I, in any given moment, remembered the open heart; the way love ties me to others; has it brought me beyond petty attitudes to be present with the woman I love meeting the challenges that emerge with every moment?
I’m getting ready for an evening performance of poetry and music on the theme, looking at more than three thousand years of world cultures and their insights into love and romance. I want to do this, not because I know the topic, but because I don’t know it well enough and want to know more. I need an advanced course and a deadline, to get out of grade school if I can, while I can.
I’ve been lost in love before, inhaled its heady fragrance, lucky enough to see love mellow and ripen and I’m o’ so grateful for it. But I’ve blown it as well, given up when it got tough, stayed too long and not long enough. Was it naiveté, will I do it again? Maybe there’s more I could have done, that I could still do.
I suspect as a culture we’ve forgotten what happens when reverence for love gets lost. Maybe that’s partly due to the way we elevate the personal. I read that when Ibn Arabi felt the ecstatic pull to a Persian beauty, he knew behind it was a gift of divinity and it propelled him to embrace the Sufi inspiration: love is my religion and my faith. When the Greeks told the story of how Aphrodite condemned Psyche to a craggy rock for the way her beauty was worshiped by the community, was it out of jealousy or because we’d forgotten how beauty came to us. Can we hear Sappho call respectfully to Aphrodite: Lady of Cyprus, pour the nectar that honors you into our cups. And when it all gets too heady, can Ikkyu bring us back to ground: Ten days in the monastery made me restless…If one day you come looking for me, ask for me at the fishmonger’s, in the tavern, or in my woman’s embrace.
I wonder, is it really a test about success and failure? When, as Centolella says, we…climb the hill as the light empties and park our tired bodies on a bench above the city and try to fill in the blanks, maybe it’s not about our own view at all. Whatever looks down on us in our reflection, does it marvel as we do at the effort, the stories, the love?
Larry Sorkin is a part time business man, sometime poet, and occasional performer of poetry with musicians. He’s been working with the Bechtler Ensemble for over ten years. He teaches and presents workshops exploring poetry and the arts, dance, and music. You can find some of his published work in the collections …and love... and What Matters by Jacar Press.
Please join us Friday, February 16 at 6:30 pm, for Star-bless’d, Star-cross’d: An Evening of Poetry, Music and Art—a multi-media performance and celebration with The Bechtler Ensemble, poet Larry Sorkin, and artist Terry Thirion, presented by Charlotte Lit, Charlotte Friends of Jung, and International House, Midwood International & Cultural Center (Charlotte Lit’s building) Auditorium. [More information and tickets]
Editor’s Note: On Monday February 12 at 8 pm, George Saunders gives the Conarroe Lecture at Davidson College. The event is free, but tickets are required.
George Saunders is big on kindness. When I read the convocation speech he gave at Syracuse University, which is now available to us in a book, Congratulations, By The Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness, which I highly recommend, it got me wondering: if you write fiction, as Saunders does beautifully, is there such a thing as being kind to your reader?
I happen to believe that there is. Kindness begins with respect, human being to human being. The writer of fiction should assume that the reader is an intellectual equal. Now, I know George Saunders knows more than I do, and when I read his Lincoln in the Bardo, I relished the challenge of keeping up. This masterpiece of a novel, about souls in a literal or figurative state of transition, tells the story—from a wildly original point of view—of Abraham Lincoln in the hours surrounding his beloved 11-year-old son Willie’s death from typhoid fever. Even though I wandered through some pages, disoriented as a blind squirrel looking for a nut, I trusted that Saunders would lead me to the light.
No one likes to be talked down to or treated with condescension. I used to tell my high-school English students, “In a three-page paper, you only need to say it one time. I know I’m old, but my memory is still intact. You don’t need to restate your thesis in the conclusion. Use that space and opportunity to tell me something related to your topic that I may not know.” Saunders taught me a lot, not only about American history, but also about tone and characterization and pacing and structure. Fiction writers are teachers, too. I choose to read writers whose ability level is far beyond mine so that I might learn from them.
Kind writers allow the love for their craft to show. When I read Saunders, I’m reminded of my ninth-grade geometry teacher who could not hide her admiration for the beauty of a geometrical proof. Her voice would change; her eyes would shine. I witness that same kind of joy in Lincoln in the Bardo. Imagine Saunders’ delight when he discovered that, in 1861, the President received a letter that read, “Mr. Abe Lincoln, you don’t Resign, we are going to put a spider in your dumpling….” (There’s more to that letter that made my mouth fall open in horror; see page 233 for details.) As I read these words a second time, I can almost see Saunders hopping out of his desk chair and jumping around like he’d won the lottery. Ali Smith is another awe-inspiring contemporary fiction writer easy to catch in the act of joy; her novel How to be Both is as inventive and challenging as Lincoln in the Bardo. I don’t know if Smith and Saunders have met, but I believe they’d become the fastest of friends.
A kind fiction writer embraces economy of language. One of the mantras of the editor and publisher should be, “No self-indulgence allowed.” A writer flaunting his flair with intricate similes or veering off on an unrelated tangent reveals a selfishness, not to mention a startling lack of awareness, that someone other than he will be reading the words. With their enlarged empathy genes, kind writers know better than anyone that there are plenty of other A+ novels their readers could have chosen instead. “Kindness, it turns out, is hard,” Saunders told the student body at Syracuse, where he teaches creative writing—also hard if done well, and worth all the precious time and emotional energy and sleepless nights when one reader says, “Those words on that page: I am pretty sure that you wrote them just for me.”
Jenny Hubbard lives in the town of her childhood (Salisbury, NC) and works at the public library where she first learned to read. Her two novels, Paper Covers Rock and And We Stay (Delacorte Press, Penguin Random House), feature teenage protagonists who come to rely on poetry as a way to order the chaos. An English teacher for seventeen years, Jenny believes she learned more from her students than they ever learned from her. She is currently under the tutelage of her rescue dog, Oliver.