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My dad gave me some hard line rules to live by: never cross a picket line. Be good to old ladies. Know that any job, no matter how prestigious, is just a job. And when all else fails, never cross a picket line or rat someone out.
These are some hard line rules for readers of poetry:

1. If you are reading in an open, do not, not ever, not on pain of death read more than your time allotted. It smacks of conceit and disregard for others. It’s garbage. There are very few people I want to shoot, but I would shoot a conceited poet and not have trouble sleeping. Dealing with assholes is part of a host’s job. Don’t make them work any harder.

2. If you are a feature, don’t ever complain about whether you are first or last. If you are that good and they put you first, you will make the host look stupid for putting you in the opening act position, and, if you are not that good, you belong first and should do the best you can to read well– and not overly long.

3. Never, never read more than the time given you as a feature. You want people clapping because they like your poems, not because you got off the stage.

4. Don’t bug the host, and play the difficult artist. If an artist is difficult, I expect her or him to be a genius. Only a genius could make me want to put up with that dog shit artistic temperament. Now-a-days, everyone has artistic temperament. Accountants have artistic temperament; it is boring. You may as well wear a black beret on your head, and snap your fingers to an Edith Piaf song while talking about Sartre. It’ out Herods Herod. Pray you avoid it.

5. Never leave after you have read as the feature and avoid the open. If you need to go somewhere, stay for a couple poems. Tell the whole audience you are sorry you can’t stay longer. Make a gesture. They had to put up with you. For many of them it was an ordeal. Show some sense of gratitude.

6. Never, never say: three more poems, or six more poems, or any number. Someone in the audience is thinking, ” Oh my God, six more? This is torture.” Just read and when you have come to your last poem, say thank you.

7. Section poems are only good if they are really sections. I hate when poets get up there and I know they have written a poem in sections only because they like the power of counting off sections. Drives me up a wall. I know you can count to ten. Don’t.

8. Do not ever ask an author to trade books with you unless you and she or he are truly broke. Wait for him or her to ask. Poets are never so poor. I know this because I have drink and smoke with them on occasion. They have money.They are being cheap. Poets who are cheap usually over read and think very highly of themselves. You should not suffer them to live much less trade books with you.

9. Listen to newcomers in an open. If they have a few good lines, try to remember them, and go up to them after the reading and tell them. It will make them feel welcomed. A reading is a communal event.

10. If a host makes a mike available to you, do not act as if he or she has handed you a snake. If you don’t want a mike, tell him before the gig. And don’t think the audience should listen harder if you have no projection. Stop the control games. Make sure everyone can hear you, or take the mike. It won’t kill you.

11. If you are a teacher, set an example by being self effacing and not over reading. Again, this is a control issue and gives students the wrong message.

12. Do not co-opt a reader and keep him or her from others who may wish to have face time. That’s tacky.

So those are my baker’s dozen. Try them.

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Joe Weil is a lecturer at SUNY Binghamton and has several collections of poetry out there, A Portable Winter (with an introduction by Harvey Pekar), The Pursuit of Happiness, What Remains, Painting the Christmas Trees, and, most recently, The Plumber's Apprentice, published by New York Quarterly Press. He makes his home in Vestal, New York.

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  • joe weil September 27, 2010, 7:45 am

    I should have added that none of these rules apply to grad students who are taught bad manners from their mentors. The pecking order is always more extensive than the talent available. Grad students expect you to be a prick because they want to be where you are someday, and they like the whole Sartre’s disdainful waiter crap. I feel sorry for grad students, but Hell, I feel sorry for everyone, especially me.

  • Snark Hunter September 28, 2010, 12:05 pm

    Doesn’t a baker’s dozen have 13 items? Perhaps you should ignore No. 7 and write your poems in sections to practice counting.

  • Micah Towery September 28, 2010, 4:41 pm

    wow snark….that may win the asshole of the month award!

  • joe weil September 28, 2010, 9:32 pm

    Snark: You are the 13 th thing I was waiting for (12 for grace, the extra pastry for asshole) to complete my baker’s dozen: poets who ignore substance to make not very clever correctives and who treat reasonable advice as an excuse to be mean. Yes, a bakers dozen includes thirteen, and you’re the 13 th thing I would avoid on any poetry scene: I’m sure your I’m a little math challenged, but I think I can count to one, and, in your case, with my middle finger. God bless you, and may you always be the genius of sesame street. By the way, I added an extra comment– my 13 (see initial comment) You’re one over my limit.

  • joe weil September 28, 2010, 9:37 pm

    Sorry for the typo: “your” was not intended. Wrote too quickly.

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