Live Poetry Readings

poetry readingsPoetry readings tend to be duller than they need be, and some are positively embarrassing. The poet does not realize that reading is a performance requiring showmanship, or simply disdains to acquire any of the skills that the tenderfoot actor has drilled into him day after day. Disaster is inevitable. The chairperson mumbles a few words, the poet shuffles to the lectern, reads his work in a monotone interspersed by uncomfortable silences. Questions are invited, but the silence only grows more oppressive. A loyal friend buys one copy of the latest collection, and the poet resolves never to go through the experience again.

To avoid these horrors:

1. Rehearse

Performing can be learnt, in fact has to be learnt, and few realize just how hard the politician, the after-dinner speaker, or stand-up comic have worked at their craft: hour after hour for months or years: they never stop learning and improving. If you want to be taken seriously, then:

Acquire the basics of the actor's trade: relaxation, breath control, articulation, voice projection and modulation. Do this as a positive daily workout if you're on the poetry circuit, not as a chore left to the night before.

Take an acting course. It's fun (sort of) and some of the friends you'll make will come to your readings or give professional advice. More particularly, you'll realize that acting is as much a skill acquired by practice as is writing poetry.

Rehearse the performance so thoroughly that the actual reading seems habitual and natural.

Memorize the pieces sufficiently so that only the odd glance at the script is necessary.

Video yourself, or rehearse in front of a few friends.

2. Plan

Rehearsal will give you the confidence to relax and enjoy yourself. And if you have a good time, so will the audience. But you still need to plan meticulously:

Leave nothing to chance. Check lectern, microphone, space on the stage, how you make your entrance, place your script, etc.

At least pass a few bottles of wine around before the reading, and canapés if you can afford them.

Give the chairman or person introducing you a short script to work from, not just your credits but what you hope to do in the reading.

Prepare introductions to every poem, something the audience can look out for and which will point understanding in the right direction. Distribute copies of really difficult poems in advance: at least the audience will carry away something from the reading.

Know where you are on the evening's list of readers, and arrange your pieces accordingly. You'll feel easier, and so will they.

Anticipate interjections and problems; prepare handy responses.

Set the pattern after the reading by having a couple of friends buy a copy of your work, which you then sign. Get someone to actually hawk the books around, and another to take the money. You can't mingle with guests, sort out change and sign books all at the same time.

Consider selling cassettes or CDs of your readings once you've acquired a good delivery.

3. Work the Audience

The audience is well disposed. They've come along specially to hear you, and will cheer you on if you give them half a chance. So:

Try to meet everyone and say a few words to them in the social half hour before the reading. Remember names and work them into your introduction. Bill Stocker here tells me he's written poems for twenty years. I guess many of you have. . .

Warm up with a few jokes or anecdotes.

Start off with a poem in a lighter vein, something that picks up from your introduction.

Be human and explain what you're trying to do in each poem. Particularly is this important for the short lyric, which can be over before the words sink in.

Illustrate how others have tackled the problem, what came to you initially, and what happened.

Invite audience participation. You don't like that last line? No, I have my doubts. Back to the drawing board, then. Now this piece. . .

Be genuinely friendly to the audience. Address them directly. Secure attention. Play to their responses.

Construct a performance, with a clear beginning, middle and end. Tell your audience when you're reading your last poem, and make sure it's a good one.

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