Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

Two Poem Warnings and the Potential of a Program


When I was at the Miami Book Fair back in November of 2010, I saw Susan Rich do something that I’ve never seen at a poetry reading.  I had heard tell of interesting give-aways at her readings, so I was hoping for lavender scented chocolates, but I’ve since decided that what she actually did was far more valuable.  She gave us the two poem warning.

Shortly before the end of her reading, she told us that we were two poems away from the end.  Later I thought it remarkable that fewer poets do that.  I would argue that more of us should.

A two (or 3 or 4) poem warning focuses the mind.  The warning acts as a shepherd, herding us all back to attention.  It’s so easy for our attention to wander, especially as we get deep into the reading.  The two poem warning calls us back.  

Lately, I’ve wondered if we should go even further with our poetry readings, in terms of providing signposts for the audience.  I’ve wondered if we shouldn’t arrive with a program or a bulletin, much as we would get at a concert or recital–or performances of many kinds of art.

My mother is a classically trained musician, so I’ve had the chance to go to many concerts.  I’ve always found the program invaluable.  It lets me know where we are and where we’re going.  It gives me background information.  I can stash it away as a souvenir, to provide happy memories later.  Why don’t poets provide programs?

There are some drawbacks, of course.  Even as I write this, I hear the howls of protest from my environmentalist friends.  We can take some steps to mitigate the impact (like using recycled paper, planting seedlings), but handing out paper programs does mean that some trees will die.

Then there’s the issue of spontaneity.  Handing out a program means that we have lost some chance to deviate from the plan.  I know that some poets have several different readings in their heads, so that they can choose poems and go in directions as they sense audience response. 

Of course, audiences might be willing to forgive a bit of spontaneity, especially if properly introduced:  “This poem reminds me of a poem I wrote earlier, and I just can’t resist giving you this extra poem.”  If we deviate too much, it defeats the purpose of having a program, of course, but like the two poem warning, like the program, a deviation calls the audience back to attention.

The most important reason to have a program is the potential to gain new audience members, and this reason trumps the environmental concerns or the desire for spontaneity.  Often, we assume that we’ll be reading only for poetry fans, but unfortunately, that assumption means we’ll forget about all the others in the room who aren’t already fans, who can use some guidance.

Who might these people be?  The students who come for extra credit, the spouses (or significant others) and children of the poetry fan who drug them all there, the curious friends of the poetry fan, the people who just happened to be in the neighborhood.

Many people, even the ones who come to poetry readings, feel that poetry is a tough art form to appreciate; a program or bulletin would help them find their way.  A program gives us a place to put background information, if that’s important–then we don’t have to bog down our readings with lengthy explanations.  If we’re reading from an assortment of our books, the program can serve as a playlist; then later, perhaps an audience member will say, “I really loved that poem about modern big, bad wolves.  I’d love to buy the book that poem came from”–and there’s the program, serving as handy reference.  A program gives us a chance to advertise our upcoming readings and publications.  We might even promote other people.

A program gives people a souvenir, something to remember us by.  A program might serve as a prompt, helping people to remember to support the world of poetry, whether by attending more readings, buying more books, or simply by reminding people of what a wonderful reading they enjoyed–thus encouraging them to go to more readings. 

A program offers all sorts of potential.  We shouldn’t overlook the possibilities.

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Author: Kristin Berkey-Abbott

A poet, a scholar, an administrator, a wanna-be mystic--always wrestling with the temptation to run away to join an intentional community--but would it be contemplative? social justice oriented? creative? in the mountains? in the inner city?--may as well stay planted and wrestle with these tensions and contradictions here, at the edge of America.

5 thoughts on “Two Poem Warnings and the Potential of a Program

  1. I do love the 2-poem warning practice you describe here, and have heard various versions of it work very well. I like your idea that it can re-focus wandering attention, and it also makes the audience comfortable (and other poets in a group reading!!).

    Eager to hear what people think of the program idea, and in what circumstances it could work! You make a good case for it!

  2. I am fascinated by the idea of the program, especially since it could contain contact information, blog and website addresses, & etc. Often I go to a reading and I’m short on cash at that moment but think about buying the book later…and then I forget or lose track.

    As for the environmental concerns, it doesn’t have to be fancy or even a full page.

    I will continue to think about this. Thanks!

  3. One possibility is to create something that serves more than one purpose. For example, postcard stock (regular size or oversize, depending on amt of info) with the cover photo on one side and the info Sandy mentions + the poem list on the other. I created a publication announcement for my collection that also included some snippets of a poem plus info about the cover artist who is offering a special limited edition print of the artwork. I used VistaPrint to create the card, a relatively inexpensive printer that produces quite good product. People were thrilled to get it.

    • Yes, Maureen! I was going to mention something similar. If you have access to a color printer or photocopier, you don’t even need to use Vistaprint and can tailor a small number of postcards to your audience based on the reading you are doing.
      I did a feature reading in December, 5 days before Christmas. I had decided to include a poem that references nutcrackers as part of the holiday themed open mic portion of the evening and created a simple postcard with a photo I took of a nutcracker, the printed poem, and my contact info. It was a memento for the audience and a way to include them in the reading without losing the spontaneity of being able to adjust your “set list.” Several people who had just happened to be in the coffee shop actually contacted me later for information about my book, so Sandy’s comment also rings true.

  4. Great post, Kristin. A paper hand-out is a good idea, but a verbal program is not a bad idea either, I think. I listen to a lot of Power Point presentations for work (…) and my favorites are the ones that give you a thumbnail up front, so you know where you are and don’t feel like you’re captured in some never-ending black hole of slides. “I have 10 slides for you, in which I will describe our program and its impact, before ending with four recommended best practices.” The really good ones incorporate the ‘two-slide’ warning, parallel with Kristin’s recommendation. “In these last two slides….”

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