Reading poetry. Poetry readings.

Last week I took part in this year’s Houston Poetry Festival. It was a lot of fun and got me thinking about what goes into a good poetry reading. Here’s my 2¢:

Preparation

As an Army brat, I heard a lot of acronyms growing up. My favourite was always the 7 P’s: Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. Probably because the swear word made me snigger, but still. Reading your work through before you stand up in front of an audience helps you figure out whether you need to print it out in a bigger font/order new reading glasses/schedule emergency cataract surgery. Harsh? Folks, it’s called a reading. If you can’t see what’s on the page, you may as well not bother.

Punctuality

Work out how long it takes to read each of your pieces; add in a bit for your introduction, your between-poem anecdotes, your foreign-language translations, your accompanying interpretive dance and incense waving, whatever’s applicable. Read the guidelines and trim accordingly. If you’re allotted five minutes, don’t arrive with a stack of twenty epic poems and a rambling reminiscence about eating cabbage soup with Uncle Jakub at age twelve. You’ll just come across as an egocentric limelight hog. If you’re really that good, people will show up to your next reading, buy your books, invite you to their dinner parties. Then you can snub them and be an even bigger egocentric limelight hog.

Performance

Here’s where I go back and contradict everything I just said.

  1. It’s called a reading, but the truth is if I wanted to watch someone stick their nose against the page and mumble, I’d give the book to my six-year-old. The poets I enjoy most are engaged with their audience, make eye contact, show emotion. They know their material, they don’t just read it. Some have even been known to wave their arms, do impersonations or break into song. Although if you find yourself contemplating finger puppets, you’ve probably gone too far.
  2. I’m not going to give any special dispensation on timing, but I do think that the introduction to a poem can add a lot to a reading. An outline of why/where/how a poem was written can change the experience of hearing it – and make the audience feel they’re getting something they wouldn’t get by just picking up your book and reading it themselves.

Poor Poet

You thought it was all about you. The hours of introspection, pouring your tortured soul onto paper with no anticipation of financial reward (if you thought you’d get rich by writing poetry, we’re way beyond finger-puppet territory. The only advice I can give is to be wary of nice Nigerian men wanting to give you lots of money).

Now you’ve been published, you’ll finally get the recognition you deserve. The audience should think itself lucky to bask in your glorious presence. You can read. In a sing-song voice. A few words. At a time. Running stanzas together. Or with dramatic mid-line.

Pauses.

No? Well, you can. And when everyone avoids you at the end-of-show book signing, you can look at it as fuel for the angst fire in which new poetry is forged.

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