Poets: Booing is for Ghosts & Hissing is for Snakes

My courage is paper-thin.
Photo Credit: Tasha Simons

A stage is a magical place. All at once, you are naked to the audience, who views you while you cannot see them; but the stage is also a location of great power, allowing a performer to armor himself or herself with the performance. The greatest performances coat a universal vulnerability with a thin layer of bravado; speaker connects with listener and they feel each other.

I find this true of myself when I step onto a platform and voluntarily do the very thing I hate: speak in front of people. Yet, I love performing poetry. I am not the same me. The atmosphere takes hold of my vocal chords and ratchets up a level of volume far above my usual whisper. When I’m doing it right, vulnerability is backseat passenger to my bravado.

There are yet chinks in this armor. If the audience stares lifelessly, I falter. The words so well rehearsed slink across the plains of memory into the hinterlands of forgetfulness. The more naked I feel, the colder the stage.

In great open mic or slam environments, the host sets the thermostat to a warm, welcoming temperature. No matter how kooky the poet, no matter how pedantic the rhyme scheme, no matter how long-winded the preamble to the song about nothing: if stages were made to be inhospitable (by audience or host), no one would overrule their better judgment and bare themselves in front of strangers.

For this reason, the reports of booing and hissing a poet onstage at the 2013 National Poetry Slam grieved me.

Booing and hissing is historically allowed, according to the history of slam. But it is not in the vein of “slamily.” We say, “Applaud the poet, not the score.” “Boo the score, applaud the poem.” “Respect the mic.”

Nowhere in this do I find implicit permission to boo a poet for unrelated issues. Even when the poet is an awful human being, offstage beef stays there. The stage is safe space, protected to ensure that necessary vulnerability is not violated. A hiss snakes into a performer’s carefully donned courage and injects fear. Booing is a sucker punch from a ghost veiled in darkness. There is no difference between this and heckling.

Many poets have expressed they don’t care that the targeted poet’s teammates were hurt by the audience (mostly poets) booing them during their performance. “Three minutes and ten seconds of shame is nothing compared to the lifetime of pain dealt to assaulted women.”

To this, I say, the term “sacrificial poets” never meant we should treat people like disposable bout sheets we scratch on until the final score is tallied. A wound is a wound. No person is dispensable.

I would rather have a bucket of ice dumped on my naked skin than to endure booing and hissing from a frigid audience. At least ice melts.

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