Preparing for a Poetry Reading
April is National Poetry Month, so you may notice an upswing in the number of readings in your part of the world. GO!
Last month, the Frances Perkins Branch Library in Worcester, Massachusetts hosted the launch of my second book of poetry, A Brush with Words. I am grateful to the people who showed up to celebrate the event. It was a wonderful way to begin a new part of the journey (Judy’s Journal, 2012 December).
This month, in honor of National Poetry Month, I will read at Booklovers’ Gourmet in Webster, Massachusetts, one of the few remaining independent bookstores in our area (Saturday, April 27th at 2:00 p.m.).
It is my goal to read once a month, until the open mics and feature opportunities run out or my first hundred books are sold. There will definitely be some work involved here. Thank you to everyone who has already bought copies!
It is safe to say that John and I have attended hundreds of poetry readings over the past four decades. A three-foot section of our floor-to-ceiling bookshelves is devoted to poetry books, many of which we purchased at readings. When we buy art, it is a special treat to speak with the artist. It is the same with poetry.
We have listened intently to world famous poets, as well as regional or local talents. During each event, I try to notice what makes a reading satisfying or frustrating.
What have I learned?
First of all, deciding upon and contacting venues involves a certain level of organization. I keep a chart with columns for venues, names, dates, special notes. At poetry events, I ask if people know about other places I might contact. Just last night at a reading, asking that question gave me another lead.
Once a reading is scheduled, I find out who is responsible for publicity. I may need to send out press kits and/or submit information on the Social Web. With some, it is a cooperative effort (you do some, they do some). With others, publicity is their responsibility. Being aware of which venue requires what is crucial. I have learned, however, that lots of publicity does not ensure large audiences. While being ignored hurts, at least I tried to get the word out. I will read poetry for just one person, if it is not too embarrassing for her or him.
Second, I prepare my “play list.” I always want to learn something new, especially about my poems. Can I find a surprising pattern and begin/end each poem by saying a few words about it? Is there an image that developed from a completely different source and ended up in this poem? Was there something about the research involved that people might enjoy hearing? I believe these stories give the audience and me a break in listening/reading, which can be intense. I have attended readings where the poet reads poems one after the other, with nary a pause or anecdote. Not my favorite experience, even if the poems are good. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I have sat through readings listening to a poet describe the entire poem, then proceed to read it, using much of the same language. For every poem! Where is the pleasure of discovery? Gone.
Third, I time myself. Thirty to forty minutes is the limit. That may seem like a short amount of time for people to venture out to hear you, so I see about offering refreshments. Recently, a very smart poet, Lily MacKinnon, planned an uplifting hour of piano/violin and poetry. We enjoyed carefully chosen musical interludes between hearing sets of her poems. For A Brush with Words, some of the poems have reciprocal paintings, and I plan to bring a few to break the poetry-only pattern.
Fourth, I make copies of all the selected poems and put them in a binder. It supports my personal poetry reading comfort zone. It frustrates me when a poet acts as if he or she just came in off the street with a pile of poems and/or books and was asked to read! The poet shuffles through papers or books, looking for “the next poem” while the audience waits. I have been at readings where poets could not find the second page of a poem and apologized profusely. Added drama for dropping the pile on the floor! If this is meant to entertain or give breathe time, sorry, it only serves to annoy me. “Look,” I want to shout, “we are all busy! Please, come prepared. Hey, I am waiting here!”
Fifth, I choose a nice outfit, with jewelry that will attract, but not distract. I believe people need to focus on something else during my reading. That is why it will be good for me to have an easel with a painting on it!
While preparing for my book launch in March, I came across an old list of suggestions I wrote for a poet who was preparing for her first reading:
To Get Ready:
1. Look at your work, sort it into groups (common images, themes, subjects, inspirations, obsessions, passions, emotions). Look again and sort them into more groups. You will be surprised by the number of lenses you can put onto your poems.
2. Consider your audience.
3. Select poems with respect to your allotted time.
4. Time yourself, allowing for an introduction and a few words about the poems. For example, think about one thing you would like to say to get the audience interested in the poem. Jot key words on your pages.
5. Prepare a 2-3 sentence biography to give to your host in advance.
1. Bring watch, water, any visual materials.
2. RELAX! You are prepared!
3. EYE CONTACT!
4. Thank hosts and/or organization by name, as well as the audience for coming.
5. Share a bit of the reading’s structure with the audience, because it is like the glue to your reading, and they might appreciate knowing in advance.
6. Take breaths between comments, titles and beginning each poem.
7. SAVOR your words. You chose them for good reason. Don’t rush. Give each poem its due.
8. Tell when you have two or three poems left. It’s the first stage in saying good-bye gracefully.
9. Race home and write in your journal about what worked, what needed work, what you will do differently next time. Poetry readings are learning experiences!