25th Trillium Award

Microphone Lessons for Poets: Part 1

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Like meetings between hikers and wildlife, encounters between poets and mics do not always end, or even begin, well. Outside of their usual habitats (mics usually live in closets, as do poets), and unaccustomed to one another’s idiosyncrasies, the two species can easily startle one another.

The worst results of these encounters do not bear description. Upon listening to the recordings, Werner Herzog advised destroying the tapes.

But it does not have to be this way. There are precautions poets can take to increase the probability of peaceful, mutually satisfying, uninjurious interactions with microphones everywhere.

In case you are wondering about my qualifications to tell you about microphones, I will admit that I am not, myself, a microphone expert. What knowledge I have comes from my new bible, Modern Recording Techniques, now in its seventh edition. (It is true—modern recording has been happening almost as long as modern poetry.)

Because I am the type of person who prefers my recording technicians to be wearing bellbottoms, I consulted the second edition. But the basic information is, one hopes, the same.

Step 1: Know your microphone.

It is virtually impossible to know with certainty, in advance of arriving at a reading, what kind of microphone you will meet once there. At some readings, you may find that the microphone never materializes at all. Try to accept this uncertainty as part of the intrigue of your new hobby: effective microphone use.

General knowledge about the kinds of microphones likely to appear at poetry readings will help you get the most out of the ones you do encounter.

You may want to keep a log book with sketches of each type of mic and a tally of the number of times you have seen it. These sorts of records help the poetry community keep tabs on the population, and may also attract trainspotters to your reading.

There are two kinds of microphones every poet should be aware of. Today we will discuss one:

The dynamic cardioid microphone

Dynamic cardioids are the mics that look like these ones. They are extremely common. In birdwatching terms, they are seagulls. If they were bears, they would be brown. If poems, confessional free verse. Please do not feed them, or let them feed you back.

Dynos, as I affectionately call them, are adapted for use in live venues, as opposed to recording studios. They are designed to amplify the sound of your poem about angry sea turtles (or whatever your poem is about), while excluding the sounds of the ice machine, the belcher in the front row, and the cell phone you left on in your bag.

The main worry when dealing with a dyno is that it will mistake you, too, for a background noise and ignore your entire poem. (This can also be a worry with some audiences.) Aside from making your poem as un-belchlike as possible, the main thing to do is get close to the microphone.

Be inspired, if you must, by your favourite close talker and by Jeramy Dodds’ poem “Heimlich.” We are talking one-to-two inches from the top of the mic. And we are talking about remaining there, unflaggingly, for the duration of your reading. Do not let worries about the microphone's personal space dissuade you.

Interestingly, the “cardioid” part of the mic's name comes from the fact that the mic picks up sound in an upside-down heart shape (imagine the heart sort of, um, straddling the head of the mic). If you are supremely nerdy and have written a poem about love (or pornography), perhaps you can work this fact into your banter somehow.

Also interestingly, the “dynamic” part of the name is a lie. As I suggested earlier, do not be dynamic. Do not move your head up or down or left or right. If the microphone is in a fixed location, do not move at all. Stare it down. (Or, rather, talk it down.) Read four or five poems, max. Then back away slowly, protecting your head and neck.

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