Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

Creating a Set List for Your Poetry Reading


Preparing for a poetry reading can be a bit unnerving, especially if you’ve got lots of poems in your folder and especially if you’re relatively new to poetry readings.  It might help to approach the event as if you’re a musician.  Create a set list.

And how, exactly, do we do that?  Before you start creating your set list, think about your goals for the reading.

Some of us approach the reading as a way to sell our books.  Those of you who see this approach as too mercenary can skip ahead a paragraph or two. 

Obviously, if you’re hoping to sell books, your set list should be composed primarily of poems from the book you hope to sell (on Thursday, I’ll address creating a set list if you’ve got several books to sell).  You don’t want people hearing your poems, falling in love with them, buying your book, and getting home to the crushing realization that they didn’t get a copy of the poem they loved after all.

That still leaves you with decisions to make; obviously, you can’t read the whole book.  Look at the book and choose the poems that best represent the book as a whole.  I’d end with a poem (or two or three poems) that leaves your audience in an uplifted mood.

 But let’s say you don’t have a book or you don’t want to focus on selling a book.  The basic advice still holds true:  which of your poems best represents your body of work?  Which poems go best together?  Which threads (of imagery, of musicality, of form) do you want to use to weave your poems together into a unified reading?

Or maybe you don’t want to be unified.  Maybe you want to show the diversity of your poetic skills.  Again, you can think in terms of a set list, but each set will be smaller:  the sonnet set, the surreal set, the set of poems that revolve around astronomical themes.

Be sure to read your poems out loud before you head to the poetry reading.  A reading in the privacy of your living room will let you be sure that you can read the poems smoothly.  Some poems are just too hard to read out loud.  That’s cool.  But you want to be sure which poems those are before you get to the reading.

If you’re sharing the stage, it’s even more important to practice before you get to the reading.  You want to be sure you know how much time you’re allotted, and you want to make sure your reading comes in under that time instead of over it.

It doesn’t hurt to have an extra set list or two stashed in your bag.  Once, I thought I would be sharing the stage with two other poets and a jazz band would perform after our reading.  For reasons that were never explained to me, the other two poets never arrived.  Happily, I was able to keep going until the jazz band arrived.  I felt slightly bad for the audience members who might have come to hear the work of the other poets.  But as a performer, my duty was to fill the time allotted, so that the jazz band had a full audience.

I travel with extra poems.  You never know when you’ll get a standing ovation, when people will demand to hear more.  Like a musician, you don’t want your audience to regret asking for more.  Leave them with two or three more poems, and then get ready to sign the books you’ve sold.  Or head to the champagne table to talk to the inquisitive and to your fans, old and new.

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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 “Creating a Set List for Your Poetry Reading

  1. Kristen, Thanks for this post! I agree with everything you’ve written here. I almost always create a set list for my readings, and afterwards often people will come up and thank me for being organized–so many poets get up and shuffle papers, search for poems, dither around.

    I would add another piece of advice–have alternative set lists for different sorts of crowds. I once gave a reading in a bar which just was not going well. the audience wasn’t responsive to the particular poems I’d chosen. If I could do it over, I would have had a back up plan, with more edge to it, to pull out when it was clear my first reading wasn’t working.

    One other thing I like to do as a poet: incorporate a poem or poems by others somewhere in the reading. It introduces the audience to new poets they may not have heard of, and gives something back to the larger river of poetry we all draw from. As one audience member said to me, “It takes the ego out of the reading.”

  2. Great post, Kristin.

    “It might help to approach the event as if you’re a musician.”

    I love this connecting idea! And a big ‘yes!’ to Sarah’s idea of incorporating other people’s poems in your reading, for the reasons she lists.

  3. Great advice, Kristin–and Sarah, too! I love the back-up plan, and I, too, like to avoid the dithering!

  4. Great post, Kristen! I find that Sarah’s observation about reading the room is so important. I will often make two set lists, especially if featuring after an open mic. I have almost completely changed my mind about poems after, say, a particularly dreary or depressing open mic (topic-wise) – introducing some lightness at that point usually is welcome. And practicing aloud really helps – I usually record the set, put it my iPod, and listen to it in the car all the way there, listening for rough spots. Looking forward to hearing more!

  5. Pingback: Creating a Set List If You’ve Got More than One Book | Voice Alpha

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