Earlier this year, I attended the MLA conference when it was in Philly. As expected, it is massive, but it is broken up into many different sessions. Each session consisted of a handful of presenters presenting their papers and work on a related topic to a room of interested audience members. Some of these groups were large, but most of the ones I attended were rather small, with between 10-20 people. As this was my first time at MLA, and as this was my first conference ever, this went against my expectations of large rooms with people crowded into them. Because of the size of the sessions, and because of the fact that only those interested in the particular topic were in attendance, the audiences were rather friendly, often talking to the presenters, asking questions, exchanging info and setting up future times to meet for drinks.
In the week or so that followed the conference, I attended a poetry reading at Fergie’s, and the similarties between the reading and the individual sessions at the conference were striking. Here was a relatively small crowd of people, mostly poets themselves, coming to hear another poet’s work. They were accomodating, friendly, and interested. Just like the sessions of the conference, there was an intimacy to it, the feeling that the people there were in a sea of other subjects, bound together by their common interest, and their desire to share drinks.
But this is not how we view the poetry the past, a form of expression for a creative niche in society. We often see writers such as Keats, Frost, and Plath writing to us about universal things, putting poems out there in an abstract way and not targeting individual people or groups, exploring the Human Experience. I know this is not true – even Frost’s famous poem (I know, I know…) “The Road Less Taken” was written in direct response to another work, a fact that changes the meaning of the poem and is often overlooked by our contemporary analysis and reading of it. However, this view of poetry just being put ‘out there’ has to have had an impact on how we collectively approach writing.
This set of experiences has set in motion for me a desire to explore how we as poets consider our audience. When we write, How do we picture them? Do we see our audience to be everyone? Do we see them as those people in that room, the interested few? For those of us with purchaseable products (i.e. books), in our writing do we cater to those who would buy it? Or do we not consider it at all – do we just write?
The more I think about this, the more important I feel audience is, especially since there is always an implied audience whenever we write. It calls into question the role we see poetry or art as having in our world. The wider we consider our audience to be, the more impact our work can potentially make. But does the widening of our audience limit us creatively? It seems it would, just as it would the musician attempting to sell a million copies. And does the purpose of our work overshadow its creativity?
I can only speak for myself, but I personally think little about audience during the actual writing. I often write about topics that interest or speak to me, but it isn’t until I am faced with the ‘business’ of sending work to be published or preparing for a reading that I consider the response that my words would create. This is when a fair amount of editing occurs. I add things such as repetition and remove things that don’t sound as good as they look. I have even changed poems completely after reading them once at an event. I guess that means, though, that the primary audience of my work that I see in my head is pretty small, the ‘poetry crowd.’ I don’t think that I am alone when I say that I wish I had a wider audience, but searching for that wider audience while balancing creativity with appeal seems to be a challenge.
As someone who spends a lot of time discussing rhetoric, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that audience often goes hand-in-hand with purpose. If your goal in writing something is self-exploratory, your audience is going to be relatively small. If your purpose is to raise awareness about mental illness through your work, your audience will appropriately be comprised of people interested in and struggling with mental illness, but it may also consist of people who ‘don’t know what they don’t know,’ and you are trying to inform them of the struggles that people with mental illnesses face. In this second case in particular, it seems that how effectively you achieve your purpose relies somewhat on how much you consider who you are writing to.
I guess I have two core unanswered questions:
- How do you perceive the audience of your work?
- Collectively, as poets, do you feel there is a way we should or should not be viewing our audience?
I would love to know what you think about this. Thanks for reading!