Even if you thought that your poetry would never make it out of the box in the closet, chances are you may have at least one chance to read your poetry in public. Poetry contest winners are often asked to read their winning works at conventions or special readings. Coffeeshops and cultural art centers may sponsor open readings, in which you can take a turn or two at the microphone.
If you are especially fortunate, a literature group or book club may actually invite you to be the main speaker at their next meeting. Whatever the occasion, a good poet should be prepared to read his or her own work aloud at some point in time. But how do you plan and execute your first public poetry reading? Here are some things to keep in mind while planning your first poetry reading.
1. Nothing will ever replace rehearsal. If you have a chance to observe stage actors during the rehearsal process, you should notice something universal after the second or third week. Very few actors will have scripts in their hands. They understand that the words are almost incidental to the many other elements that ‘sell’ a performance.
You should use the same philosophy when rehearsing your own material for public reading. Although you may have the poems collected in a folder, you should make every effort to memorize most of the lines early. A good oral interpretation relies on the speaker’s ability to convey the emotion and underlying themes of the work, not merely rehashing the printed words. Practice everything from the words on the page to eye contact to vocal interpretation.
2. Select your venue carefully. If you are giving a reading to promote your first collection, then make sure the venue you’ve chosen allows book sales. Many state-funded and non-profit operations cannot allow outside sales to occur unless the reading is directly sponsored by that organization. This may include libraries and civic center rooms. Bookstores may allow books to be sold, but they may also require sales to be rung through their own registers, not at your own table.
Be sure to speak with someone in charge of the venue’s booking policy to find out what your specific rights are concerning sales. If you do not plan on selling books, then you are usually allowed to distribute free materials after the reading. Also, find out if that particular venue will do any promotion of your reading itself. You may have to invest some time and money into creating your own flyers and advertising. Black and white posters are usually cheap and plentiful, but finding good places to hang them are not.
If there are universities or colleges in the area, see if you can promote your reading through flyers. Local television stations may invite you as a guest on their community service programs. Be prepared for odd taping times and limited exposure, but free advertising is still free.
3. Remember Speech 101 and keep it holy. All those ideas on how to give a speech should start flooding back during the rehearsal period. Maintain good eye contact with your audience, but don’t stare. Scan the entire room and click on individuals. Enunciate clearly. Define certain difficult words, if you believe the audience may need some assistance. Keep nervous fillers such as ‘you know’ and ‘like’ to a dull minimum.
Stand behind the lectern or podium as if you owned the room. This is your moment, and all these people are eager to hear what you have to say. Practice your voice levels with and without a microphone, in case you lose amplification or never had a microphone, to begin with. The difference between a miked and unmiked volume level is substantial.
4. Gauge your material to fit the audience. If you have some poems that use rough language or contain sexual or violent passages, use discretion. If your audience consists of seasoned poetry enthusiasts, then you might be able to get away with the stronger pieces. In general, however, plan on a more conservative audience when giving your first reading ever.
Either edit the pieces for content or leave them out of the mix entirely. Never lead off with a piece you are unsure about, because an unprepared audience may turn you off in their own minds if they feel insulted or abused. Once you’ve read a piece in public a few times, you should start to get an idea for what type of audience would appreciate it.
Most professional poets who do reading tours will voluntarily grade their performances like the movies. They can give a G rated reading or an X rated reading depending on the audience they face. It’s always best to consult with the sponsor of the event about controversial material before you launch into an obscene rant.
5. Get as much feedback as you can. This means positive AND negative responses. Most audience members will thank the poet for his time and art, but will rarely critique the actual performance. Have some honest friends in the audience who will tell you what you need to hear, or approach members of the audience later and ask them for a private critique. Many times you can learn what poems work and which ones need help and revision.
You can also pick up valuable advice concerning your own performance style and vocal qualities. Use that information to your advantage during your next reading. Even if the entire reading turns into a nightmare, at least you’ll know what NOT to do from this point on. Above all, keep working on new material and new projects.You can also pick up