There are a lot of poetry readings across Canada in April, National Poetry Month. I myself have a new book out, and therefore have a lot of poetry readings. All of which has gotten me thinking about poetry readings, and over the past – ahem – twenty years or so, I’ve both attended and given too many of them to count.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been to a lot of poetry readings too – some good, some great, some terrible. So what makes a good poetry reading? If you’re a poet, what can you do to ensure that your performance is stellar, your audience is impressed, and that you get invited back? Or at least, that you don’t suck?
Here’s my unsolicited advice about how to give a good poetry reading.
It sounds obvious, but be prepared. Choose what you’re going to read ahead of time, and make your choices with care and thought and intention. I know some poets who prefer to wait until they get to a reading and “read the room” and then make their selections, but I don’t like this approach. I’m not spontaneous. Besides, what if you’re late? Then you’re up on stage frantically flipping through pages while the rest of us sip our drinks awkwardly, waiting for you to make a decision and begin. This approach often leads to going over your time limit, a transgression that impacts both your fellow readers and your audience. And what if instead of gauging your audience, you misread the room? How exactly do you gauge the collective mood and preferences of various literary individuals anyway? Clairvoyance? Instead of catering to a perceived mood, you should create the mood, set the room’s tone and the listeners’ experience with your reading. It’s your work. Transport them. Challenge them. Captivate them. That’s your job when you’re reading.
As for what to read, that’s a tough one, and a pretty personal choice as to what you wish to convey as a poet. So think about that. Do you want to unsettle your audience with your most destabilizing work? Do you want to entertain? Do you want to focus on your most sound-oriented work? What do you want your audience’s experience to be? That will all be tied up with your writing style and your voice and may be a moot point, but think about it when you choose what to read. And unfortunately, your best poems may not always be the best choices to read aloud to an audience. Maybe they’re too layered or dense to work upon hearing them the first time. Maybe another piece is just layered enough to intrigue them into buying your book or chapbook. Besides choosing which poems to read, consider the order you read them in. How does one flow into the next?
Before your reading, practise. I can’t stress this enough. Know your own work, how it sounds out loud, don’t mumble, articulate clearly, and get familiar with reading it aloud. You may think you know it inside out and in some ways, most ways, you do. You wrote it, you edited it, you agonized over it. But reading it is different. If you don’t practise, you risk tripping over your words, which will be worse if you’re nervous. If you fumble, you take the reader away from the experience, and you can make yourself more nervous, and start a vicious onstage cycle. The more you practise, even if you’re anxious to share your work on stage, the better you’ll read. Don’t go too fast and don’t read too slow. If you can stand it, record yourself and listen critically. Okay, I don’t do this, but I’m sure it’s helpful to listen to yourself at home before taking to the microphone.
Time yourself. Did you hear me? Time yourself. Make sure you know what your allotted time slot is, and stick to it. Or end early. Leave them wanting more. Don’t go overtime, everyone will hate you forever. Enough said.
Once you’re on stage and giving your reading, don’t explain too much about the poem before you read it. Trust the listener to figure it out. We’ve all been to readings where someone begins with “This poem is about...” and proceeds to explain every facet of everything about it. Don’t do this. It’s annoying, and your audience is smart. They’re into poetry. So don’t tell them how to experience your poem. If it’s a good poem, you shouldn’t need to.
However, never underestimate the power of a good, concise, short anecdote. You can charm your audience and make them love you, or at least, find you interesting. A couple years ago, I read with poet Hoa Nguyen and she told a fabulous story about her mother stunt driving a motorcycle in the circus. The listeners loved it, myself included.
Don’t get wasted. Do I need to say more? We’ve all seen it. It’s messy for all involved. Don’t do it. I like a good craft beer as much as the next poet, but I limit myself to one beverage before I read, and save the fun for afterward.
Don’t get distracted. People cough, bartenders run dishwashers, cell phones ring, assholes heckle. Focus. No matter what, keep going. Don’t let the unexpected throw you off. Once I was reading to about a dozen people in a lovely indie bookstore in Cincinnati and during my reading, a young woman rose from her chair and seemingly spontaneously, launched into interpretive dance in the aisles. The shop was very small. I worried that one of my fellow readers would get a foot to the jaw and be unable to take the stage after me. No one had ever danced, interpretive or otherwise, while I read poems to them before. She was very serious about her moves - arms at sharp angles in the air, a leg kicked high, then crouching, then back up, limbs akimbo. It was very intense. Also, it was hilarious. I felt suddenly like I was in a Saturday Night Live sketch parodying a poetry reading. I worked very, very hard to keep going. I took a deep breath, and got through it. The dancer did not buy my book.
If you’re not sure how to pronounce something, look it up. Online dictionaries have those handy audio pronunciation features. Use them. Writers are readers, first and foremost, and while we may possess extensive vocabularies, we often mispronounce words we’ve only ever encountered or employed in print. I learned this one the hard way. No poet wants to be mansplained about their mispronunciations after an otherwise good reading. It’s a buzzkill for sure.
Make eye contact. You don’t need to memorize all your poems and recite them while beaming a big musical theatre smile at the crowd (ugh), but do try to look up from the page once in a while. Look at the audience occasionally so we know you haven’t forgotten about us entirely. This will also help you to enunciate and not mumble.
Keep track of what you read at each reading. This is valuable if you have a new book out and are doing a lot of readings. Sometimes we rely on our “greatest hits” and end up reading the same poems at every reading. While there are usually different audiences at each reading series or launch or event, particularly if you’re reading outside your home city or town, it’s still worthwhile to mix it up a bit. Read your three best, sure, but add in a couple of poems you don’t often read at events, as this keeps it fresh and new for you as well, bringing additional energy to your reading. We’ve all seen poets at readings where we secretly think, “Oh, they’re reading that poem again, they always read that one!” Read your best, most audience-engaging work, but throw in some surprises.
I hope this has been helpful, or at least, amusing. Otherwise, try a beta-blocker an hour before your gig. I hear that works too.
Jennifer LoveGrove's latest book is the poetry collection Beautiful Children with Pet Foxes (BookThug). She is also the author of the Giller Prize–longlisted novel Watch How We Walk, as well as two other poetry collections: I Should Never Have Fired the Sentinel and The Dagger Between Her Teeth. In 2010, LoveGrove was nominated for the K.M. Hunter Artist Award for Literature and in 2015, her poetry was shortlisted for the Lit POP Awards. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications across North America. She divides her time between downtown Toronto and rural Ontario.