When I gave my first poetry reading, I was in grad school. This was, astonishingly, roughly 15 years ago now. Although it was my first time at the podium, I’d attended many poetry readings and picked up some public speaking skills both through the undergrad student radio station and from holding leadership positions in various clubs. Using what I learned, I selected a group of poems that went over very well with my audience, and I avoided some of the pitfalls I’d been strike other readers.
With that in mind, here are some quick Dos and Don’ts:
- DO choose a variety of poems that showcase your work, alternating between different types. I like to think of a poetry reading as a spoken mix CD: I choose pieces that are more “upbeat” to follow pieces which are more “mellow.” Remember that even poetry audiences like to laugh.
- DON’T choose poems that take an excessive amount of explanation in order to enjoy them. Make the most of your limited time by keeping your explanations simple.
- DON’T read poems that are difficult to parse from one reading alone. Listeners cannot go back and read something over again.
- DO read poems that make use of vivid language, clear imagery, and striking word use. They tend to go over best with an audience.
- DO read your poems aloud ahead of time, to get comfortable with them and to make sure they will work well as “read aloud” poems.
- DO read poems directly out of any chapbook or book you might have published. It may encourage listeners to seek out those books following your reading.
- DO bring some alternatives with you, in case you change your mind. If you’re reading on a program with other poets and writers, you might be inspired by what the other readers are doing to work in a poem that fits. Or you might decide to pull a poem that’s too similar to something another poet read.
- DO stay close to your allotted time limit. It’s better to leave them wanting more than to overstay your welcome.
- DON’T over-think things. It’s natural to be a little nervous (I always am), but remember that the crowd voluntarily came out to hear poetry and, generally speaking, will work with you.
Following such rules, I have successfully read for a wide variety of audiences. Since poets and writers seldom get to meet their audiences, it’s a great opportunity to be seen and to see how an audience responds.