6 Tips for Successful Poetry Readings

03/15/2019

Recently I attended a reading by a nationally renowned poet whose work has long resonated with me, carried me off the page into that cherished space of true conversation, and spoke directly to my heart. Unfortunately, his presentation style left me cold and alienated from his words. He undermined himself and lessened his poems’ impact in a variety of ways. The experience drove me to consider what went wrong and how poets can find ways to connect more intimately with their live audiences. Having attended and participated in hundreds of readings over the years, some more successful than others, I believe these tips may help poets make the most of their time on stage.

1. Know the logistics beforehand. Familiarity with the space and equipment can be extremely useful. Is there a microphone and how sensitive is it? Some microphones pop on certain letter sounds, like ‘s’ or ‘p’. Is there time to practice before the audience arrives? Is there a stage? A podium? What type of atmosphere should you expect? A rowdy barroom, quiet bookstore, or something in between? How large is the space? Prepare to speak louder or softer depending on the venue’s size and background noise level. Does the venue have parking? If not, plan accordingly. Is there another large event nearby?

illustration of a poetry reading

“Know which poems to drop if an audience is feeling restless…” Illustration by Josh Quick

I have participated in dozens of readings in which I, or another poet, barely arrived on time due to traffic, parking, or an on-site issue that could have easily been handled if logistics were prepared for in advance. To be safe, always arrive at least 15 (preferably 30) minutes in advance. This also provides a wonderful opportunity to chat with the audience prior to the event.

2. Speak slowly, clearly, and with emphasis. As an audience member, one of the most common issues I’ve encountered is a poet who simply reads the words off the page. Often, poets rush through each piece as if trying to squeeze as much into the allotted reading time as possible. But all literature, especially poetry, requires breathing room for the audience to consider each image and concept before moving on to the next. Without such pauses, images blur together, potentially significant ideas are muted by other ideas, and the power of each written line dissolves in a flurry of unbroken speech. Poets should practice rhythm and cadence. Remember to enunciate and acknowledge silence’s essential role in conveying meaning. Also, imbue each line with the passion and zeal it deserves.

Speak slowly, yes, but not too slowly. A similarly distracting issue can arise when a poet pauses too often or too long. As too much white space may cause confusion on the page, too much silence distances images from each other. It’s a tender balance but one easily achievable with a bit of preparation and practice.

3. Keep introductory remarks brief and pertinent. Introductions can provide necessary context for a poem, imbuing the words with greater significance; offering a personal anecdote can invite the audience into the poet’s world. However, all too often poets use introductions to explain or justify the text, giving too much away and thereby lessening the poem’s impact. Such remarks should be used sparingly. Most poems don’t require them. Let the words speak for themselves. When a poem does require a bit of explanation, keep the comments brief and pertinent and make it clear where the comments end and poem begins. An easy method for differentiating the two is to read the title before moving into the poem.

Corollary: Briefly acknowledging your fellow readers, event coordinator, and the venue during your introductory remarks starts things off on the right foot by showing gratitude and respect, which will carry over into the reading itself.

4. Know what you’re going to read beforehand. Rifling through poems on stage is both distracting and unprofessional. Sure, poets often decide to cut, add, or reorder poems mid-reading depending on time constraints or the vibe of the audience. If an audience seems bored, it’s good to cut out a few poems. If a certain kind of poem seems to be resonating more than another, it makes sense to concentrate on those the audience enjoys. However, these considerations can be planned for in advance. Know how long you have to read and how much time it takes to read each poem. Know which poems to drop if an audience is feeling restless. Know which poems share a theme, structure, or voice for quick reordering. Make transitions between poems seem smooth and effortless, even if they required time and effort beforehand.

And never overstay your welcome. It’s better to leave people wanting more than tempt them to look at their watches.

5. Order your poems for maximum impact. Remembering that a poetry reading is meant to be an experience, how do you want the audience to feel? What do you want them to contemplate? How can you order your poems to hopefully achieve this?

Lead off with a strong poem that will hook the audience, and end with a poem that leaves a lasting impact. Balance your more popular, tried-and-true poems with new ones you might be reading for the first time. Audiences love to know they are receiving a first glimpse at some unpublished work, and you can use the opportunity to test poems out to see if they’re ready for a bigger spotlight. Another consideration is theme: will you be reading from a thematically linked series of poems or trying out different themes, styles, or voices so that there’s “something for everyone”? Either way, order your poems so they flow and build momentum toward a satisfying conclusion.

And read your set aloud beforehand. Select poems based on how they sound and how you read them. Not every poem translates equally well from the page.

6. Don’t be afraid to show your personality. The audience isn’t there for a direct textual reading. They want to get to know the poet behind the words, at least a little. So don’t be afraid to let your personality shine. Be it funny, somber, or warm, remember to give the audience a glimpse into your heart. This can be done in the subtlest of ways, from quick smiles to brief poignant anecdotes. Don’t wear any masks or adopt any roles; just be yourself.

However, don’t let your personality become distracting. The focus should be on the poetry. A few quips, a tender moment, or some chatting with the audience beforehand helps keep them engaged with you, the poet, as much as your work.

Corollary: Consider your use of body language. Eye contact invites the audience into your world; keeping your eyes glued to the page is professional but allows for less intimacy. Standing stoically behind a microphone gives one impression; emphasizing your words with small (or sweeping) hand gestures another. If you’re nervous or unsure how best to express your work through gesture, find your favorite poets on YouTube and study how they present themselves. Also study spoken word and slam poets, as such work is heavily performance-based. If you find a presentation style that fits your personality and the themes of your poetry, try it out before a group of friends, family, or the mirror. See if it feels natural. In the end, always do what comes naturally to you. Make your presentation style your own.

John Sibley Williams author photo
John Sibley Williams (Guest Blogger)

John Sibley Williams is the author of As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize) and Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize). A nineteen-time Pushcart nominee and winner of various awards, John serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review. Publications include: Yale Review, Atlanta Review, Prairie Schooner, Massachusetts Review, and Third Coast.