John Barr signinga book in 1991

How to Give a Successful Poetry Reading

Can you recall ever giving a poetry reading that might have gone better, or might better not have happened at all? It happens to all of us. Even marquee poets can remember the reading where no one came; and younger poets may recall an open-mic event where one of the poets would not give up the mic for half an hour.

Here are a few thoughts on how to make your next poetry reading a success and a pleasant memory.

· Don’t start your reading with a long or difficult poem. Starting with an accessible poem lets your listeners get used to your poetic voice and style.

· Your audience is there to experience the poet as well as the poems. Salt your reading with anecdotes, or a sentence or two on how the next poem was written. Let them see the poet at work. Humor is always welcome, and so is modesty.

· Surprise your audience; give them something they couldn’t anticipate. Allen Ginsberg is remembered for taking off all his clothes at a reading because “The poet stands naked before the world.” But there are safer options. Ask a friend or two to stand and read a personal favorite of your poems when you call on them. Or read a new poem which your listeners are the first to hear — even a work-in-progress. Or read a poem by another poet and explain why you admire it.

· Another way to add variety to the reading is to partner with a second poet. An event featuring two poets, or at most three, can be optimal. (More than three changes the character of the reading.) This brings in a larger audience, and still allows each poet to read for 20 minutes, with time for Q&A at the end.

· Don’t plan the event to last too long. Listening to poems requires concentration and you don’t want their eyes to glaze over. As a rule of thumb, I plan the whole event to last no longer than one hour.

· Serving refreshments after (cookies and cider or a glass of wine) is a nice way to thank your listeners, and to sell your book if a new book is the occasion for the reading.

· Virtual readings have come of age. Last summer I gave a Zoom reading hosted by a community library on Long Island. No travel required. The very capable library staff organized the Zoom call, introduced my reading, provided an interlocutor for Q&A, and posted the text of each poem on Zoom so listeners could read along as I read the poem. It made a big difference.

My best wishes to you for the poems you write, and for the readings that are sure to follow.

This essay originally appeared on the Red Hen Press blog.

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