Read Me a Poem
by Violet Nesdoly
This is our ninth column in Violet's "Poet's Classroom" series.
In her helpful book, Beyond the Words, Bonni Goldberg says, "To fulfill yourself and your role as a writer, you must complete the writing cycle by going public somehow" (p. 157). For writers in most genres, going public means getting what you've written into print. For poets, going public can also mean reading your work aloud in a public setting.
I was not just a little terrified when, some years ago, I got an invitation to be part of my first poetry reading. My memories of such readings from the past were of dull events consisting of unintelligible poems distinguished more for their sexually edgy imagery than anything else. These were then read in a monotone to a small collection of artistes who "got it" while I didn't.
Would this be that kind of event, I wondered. I was afraid my simple verses would be dismissed as not deep enough. Or maybe they wouldn't be understood either. And would I be able to keep an audience's interest? Or would stage fright play havoc with my composure, deadening my voice and pinning my eyes to the page?
It turns out I made it through that first poetry reading not only unscathed, but energized. As I read, a sense of drama that wasn't there on the printed page came through the spoken words. The crowd was engaged, listened attentively and even laughed in the right places. That day I became a poetry reading believer. And I continue to believe that with a little work on the poet's part reading poems can be a lively and stimulating way of going public with writing.
What's a Poetry Reading?
Before we talk about what poets can do to pull off a successful reading, it's important to know exactly what a poetry reading is. A little snooping around on community bulletin boards and on the internet shows us that poetry readings come in various shapes and sizes. However, the words "poetry reading" usually signal that a poet or poets will be reading their own work. Those reading sessions can vary in what they are called, what their purpose is, and where they happen.
Most often a poetry reading will be called just that. Typically during such events, one or several invited poets will read to the audience. An open mike (mic) is a reading where many poets read their work. Readers may be asked to sign up with the master of ceremonies beforehand to secure a time slot. A poetry slam is a reading which is really a competition. After each poem is read (or more likely presented from memory) the crowd may get into the act with the volume of their cheering etc. Judges award points and—at the end—one poet is declared the winner.
Why Poetry Readings?
The purposes of poetry readings are varied. Some are held in connection with writing or poetry conferences to give attendees a chance to share their work. Others put the spotlight on an individual poet at the time, say, of the launch of a new book. Still others are part of a community's literary emphasis, or one of the regular activities of a poetry or writing club, or held purely for entertainment.
The venue will suit the purpose. Readings connected with writing conferences will probably happen in hotel conference rooms, university lecture halls or wherever the conference is hosted. Readings that are part of a community's literary emphasis are often held in public buildings like libraries. Open mikes and slams gravitate to the informal atmosphere of coffee houses and pubs.
I Can't Believe I'm Invited to Read!
So you've accepted the invitation to be part of a poetry reading. Whether you're gregarious or shy, there are several things you can do to ensure that your part of the program is rewarding for all concerned.
1. Know what and how long
Be clear on what kind of a reading this is and how much time you're expected to fill.
2. Choose appropriate poems
Some elements that may make a poem a good choice for a public reading are:
• it's easy to understand.
• it has a punch line.
• it tells a story.
• it makes use of oral/aural stuff like alliteration, anaphora,
onomatopoeia, repetition, rhyme, etc.
• it is one of your favorites.
3. Include poem stories
Be prepared to include stories of how your poems came to be written. Though your writing should be able to stand on its own, the readings I've found most memorable are where readers told some of the poems' background stories before reading them. Of course you'll not do this for every poem. But do consider introducing poems, especially those that are obscure, with a personal setting.
4. Practice your reading
Rap, hip-hop and cowboy poets often memorize their poems. This makes it possible for them to focus on the presentation, be dramatic and make eye contact with the crowd. You may not want to go to this length. But it does help to remember that for your few minutes on stage, you are like a stand-up comedian, stage performer or actor. As such, be familiar with your material and know how you plan to present it. Practice reading your poems:
• at a volume loud enough to be heard. Project your voice and
articulate words clearly.
• with voice modulation (vs. monotone) using emphasis and
changing volume to enhance what you're communicating.
• slowly, deliberately and with poise. Pay special attention to
timing. Plan to give the audience time to catch on (remember,
they don't have the text in front of them). Practice holding back
just a milli-second longer than feels right before you deliver
the ending especially if your poem ends with a punch line.
5. Prepare your script
Print your reading poems in easy-to-read font. Make notes of the extra things you plan to say on those poem sheets. If you'll be reading from a book, flag your chosen poems beforehand so you won't fumble while on stage.
6. Time your presentation
Practice reading the poems and telling the stories with an eye to the clock. Make sure your presentation is within the time you've been given. (There's nothing that makes a crowd more antsy than a reading that goes on, and on, and on.)
Read me a poem
At the actual reading:
1. Come on stage prepared
Have your poem sheets in order and your book flagged, ready to read. Bring a bottle of water with you in case you get a dry, tickly throat.
2. Make eye contact
Look at audience members —at least between poems if not during them.
3. Corral your nervousness
Nervousness can make you feel like speeding up. Don't. Take deep breaths and concentrate on reading slowly.
4. Sell books
If you have a book, bring copies to sell. More poetry books are sold at public readings than at any other time.
Once you begin doing readings, keep a record of what you've read and where. That way you will avoid reading the same poems to the same audience over and over.
Reading can be witnessing
As a poet—and specifically a Christian poet—don't bypass the wonderful possibility of sharing your work in public readings. It's a great way to connect with the poets who are active in your community and to share your world view. And it may be just the move that's needed to help you go public in the more conventional way— through words in print.
Treat yourself to some online poetry readings
The Academy of American Poets listening booth (more than 300 audio clips).
Classic Poetry Aloud (every day a classic poem read aloud)
The Poetry Archive "The World's premier online collection of recordings of poets reading their work."
Readings by Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser and others.
Coming May 1:
Come back in May when, in honor of mothers and other important people in our lives, we'll talk about writing poems that celebrate people.
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Copyright ©2009 by Violet Nesdoly