Recently Amy Willoughby-Burle, author of Out Across the Nowhere, asked me about memorable experiences at readings, and it got me thinking about questions I’ve been asked.
The event was scheduled at a retirement home. When I arrived, several people already were waiting in the reception room, which was encouraging. After all, as a poet, I have high hopes regarding turn-outs, but low expectations. If anyone besides the organizer shows up, I’m happy, (and, sadly, yes, there have been times when it’s just the two of us). Right before I began, the home’s staff walked and wheeled in more audience members. One of them, Harold, immediately had a question: "When's lunch? I’m hungry." He was reminded that they had just eaten. I gave my reading and people nodded and nodded off, then I asked if there were any questions. "Yes," Harold said, "When's lunch?" I said that I thought lunch had already been served. "Well, I'm still hungry," he replied, "I think I have some bananas in my room. Anybody want to go to my room and eat some bananas?” At this point a staff member said, "Now Harold, you know you're not allowed to have people in your room anymore." "Well, Goddamnit," Harold said, "I'm hungry. When's lunch?"
In addition to retirement homes, I’ve done readings in bars, bookstores, visitor centers, malls, parks, restaurants. I’m willing to try all kinds of events, and, since I sometimes write about wine, my publisher once got us a booth and a reading at a large Health Expo. It seemed a good decision since right before I went on stage it was standing room only with over four hundred people in attendance. They were there, however, for Jillian Michaels of “The Biggest Loser,” who was scheduled in front of me. As soon as she finished, everyone left, except for a couple of elderly women and someone breastfeeding a child. I read a few poems and then one of the women raised a hand and asked, “Is this where the dance troupe is going to perform? When is that?”
What can be more surprising are questions from people who, supposedly, came specifically to see me. I once was asked to lead a poetry writing workshop at a library. The library put it in their newsletter. When I arrived, the front door had a sign that said, “Poetry Workshop Today with Poet Joe Mills.” The door to the classroom had a similar sign. I began, and approximately ten minutes later, a woman raised her hand and said, “I don’t like poetry. Is that all you’re going to talk about?” When I said, “Well, yes” (in an oddly apologetic tone). She asked, “Can’t you do something else?”
It’s a question that I come back to often.