Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

Serendipity–Report on a Reading


This past Sunday three of us with poetry chapbooks read to a warm, receptive audience in the community room of the public library.  Here are some things that made the reading work very well:

–A microphone
–Refreshments: cookies, fruit, pastries, juice, nuts
–Informal atmosphere and introductions
–Choice of poems to read to an audience

As one of the poets, Kathryn, said, “We have three very different voices,” and we did, but serendipity wove us together.  We all had some humor in our poems (and in our “patter” between poems), and we all happened to have music in our poems.  Who knew?!  (I even sang a phrase mid-poem, a bit of embedded lyric that is also conversational enough in passing not to be recognized as a song lyric, unless sung!)

I say, “Who knew?” because we did not rehearse, nor get together beforehand to discuss what poems we’d choose, which I think is most often the case at poetry readings, yes?  Oftentimes poets come together as featured guests, or in a group reading, and have some poems prepared and some backups, based on what others read.  See Kristin Berkey-Abbott’s account of this Miami Book Fair reading!   So not rehearsing is probably the norm.

Sometimes, though, I do “rehearse”—specifically with my poetry class, mostly new poets, reading on a shared theme, in a museum setting, and mostly to time the poems, so we don’t go over our allotted hour.  Reading aloud to each other is indeed 1) good practice 2) something we do regularly before feedback and as a revision technique, and 3) it does reveal common themes and serendipitous strands.

For Sunday, I chose some poems with the other poets in mind.  For example, I brought 3 train poems because I had read and loved Tim Hunt’s “Train Window” (and posted it in my blog ), and, during my set, I requested that he read that one.  Serendipitously, he had planned to read it anyway.

The microphone was essential in our public library setting, even though we had plenty of privacy, tucked into the basement auditorium space reserved for large events.  Staff did pass by in the hall, there were latecomers, and the “free and open to the public” nature of the event brought a mix of ages and some people who have difficulty hearing.

Kathryn was least comfortable with a microphone. “I tend to move around a lot when I read,” she told us, and I had shown her how the microphone could detach from its stand, but she stayed put, which was good, as we could all hear her in her whimsical, wry, and honest delivery, and her energy went into the poems instead of movement, except for eye movement, that impish glance to the left when she was being…impish.

The informal atmosphere came from speaking directly to the audience in our brief introductions to the poems, and leaving off fancy introductions of the poets themselves.  Introductions in which a host reads a biography and lists accomplishments can sometimes intimidate an audience and sort of turn them off or close them down in advance.  But our audience remained eager and open, ready to listen.

Tim Hunt read from his forthcoming chapbook Redneck Yoga, with “redneck” settings, language, and music.  As he is a “self-proclaimed redneck,” he means nothing pejorative in the label.  He also read from White Levis (as in jeans).  Kathryn Kerr read from her forthcoming Turtles All the Way Down, in poems that give voice to a turtle “as a cranky middle-aged woman.”  We got to hear that cranky turtle voice.

All three of us chose poems that could be heard and received in one hearing, especially with a wee bit of set up or context for the hearing.  We stuck with mainly shorter poems, or longer poems in sections.  We had room for darkness and complexity, but we also offered poems that could be readily grasped or accepted, if not necessarily completely understood.  We hoped and intended to connect to our audience, and so we did.

Comments afterwards confirmed this, and the audience stuck around to chat, eat, and buy books, before heading off to Sunday afternoon football on tv, or other delights.  And, because we three poets stuck to the 15-20 minute limit on our “sets,” we were out of there in an hour and a half.  Satisfied our audience and left them wanting more.

If you want confirmation, here’s a review from Julie Kistler at the theatre blog, A Follow Spot.

What are your own experiences with:

–microphones (or lack thereof)
–adapting to the venue (see Carolee Sherwood on flexibility, etc. in open mics post!)
–rehearsing or preparing as a group for a group reading
–timing, allotted time, poets respecting this (or not)
–host’s introductions of poets
–poets’ own introductions of individual poems (and see Kristin Berkey-Abbott’s post!)
–serendipity in poem choices, or serendipity in general


Author: Kathleen Kirk

Writer, blogger.

9 thoughts on “Serendipity–Report on a Reading

  1. Very enjoyable post — I love the way this all came together, Kathleen – serendipity indeed!

    We hoped and intended to connect to our audience, and so we did.

    This is a really really important point. I also believe that our own attitudes and expectations are a significant element in creating the atmosphere at such events.

    PS – I’m a little sad, though, that there isn’t much talk about reading the poems of poets other than oneself :(

    • Sorry, Nic, that will probably happen in another reading. Had to respect the purpose of this one, which was to give a taste of each poet’s Finishing Line Press book, and Tim and Kathryn were taking orders for forthcoming books. Here’s a case where, if we’d rehearsed, we might have shared poems in advance and read each other’s, but people have limited time, so that didn’t happen. So I requested that Tim read a poem from an existing book! (Had no copies of the others, so nothing to go on!)

      • Adapt, improvise, overcome! Good for you guys!

        You know I’m like a stuck record on this theme, so expect me to go grinding on and on about it. I do understand it’s not always workable though. Thanks again for the great post! N

  2. i love this report from the field! thank you for it!

    you are absolutely right: keeping events manageable in length makes them successful. there are few rules that are this important!!

    and i also love what you say about the formal introductions of poets. often the “stuff” in bios only makes sense to the other poets (publication credits, for example). i love it when the introductions are personable and even quirky!

    • Some like those intros, though, even if I don’t. I spoke to a lovely woman (not a poet herself) in the audience who had traveled some 20-30 miles to the reading (and bought 6 of my book to give as gifts–I was so flattered and amazed!!) who said she really likes hearing about the accomplishments. So I have filed that in a fold of my origamic brain.

      • You know, up until I read this, I was very much on the side of no introductions, but it’s hard to ignore the reaction of someone who ended up buying six books! It’s kind of like blurbs: I didn’t want any on my chapbook, because I think they’re braggy and embarassing, but I’ve read that a majority of bookstore purchases are strongly influenced by them.

  3. What are your own experiences with:

    –microphones (or lack thereof)
    I’ve very loud, so can sometimes do without, but would always prefer to have them so I don’t have to bellow all the way through.

    –rehearsing or preparing as a group for a group reading
    Never been that organized, but I think it’s a great idea, and I hopw to try it sometime.

    –timing, allotted time, poets respecting this (or not)
    There is no substitute for a moderator who can strictly enforce time limits. Every reading has at least one incorrigible, often a semi-big-shot who thinks people will be too intimidated to ask him to sit down. But I’ve been known to lose track of time myself — who hasn’t? — and so I usually arrange with somebody I’m with to keep an eye on the clock and make hand signals when my time is almost up.

    –host’s introductions of poets
    I agree that these should be light on awards and publications and heavy on the kinds of things that non-poet-type people would want to know: where from, married or not, kids, etc.

    –poets’ own introductions of individual poems
    Keep it light. The better humor people are in, the more they’ll like you, and they more they like you, the more closely they’ll pay attention. I tend not to say anything about how I wrote a particular poem — why take the mystery out of it? For p.r. effect, it doesn’t hurt to let people think you’re some kind of uniquely inspired genius and not just another craftsman with a battery of pump-priming strategies and the ability to make a run-of-the-mill insight seem original.

    –serendipity in poem choices, or serendipity in general
    I like to plan thoroughly, because then I’ll be relaxed, and the more relaxed I am, the easier it will be to change plans or improvise as needed.

  4. I really enjoyed this post. I love how collections of readers overlap unintentionally (or intentionally, based on the evening). I recently read in an art gallery with 4 other women, and the photography included photos of women’s nether regions (she said in her most mature, respectful voice…cough). Hilariously, all of us addressed pornography somehow in our readings, and were able to make use of the setting that way :).

    Glad your reading was so successful.

  5. I sure am enjoying learning all these variations & preferences at readings! Thanks to all. Dave, the woman bought the books based on the poems, as we didn’t do introductions of the poets, just mini-intros of the poems themselves, so that’s something to keep in mind. But I do honor her preference to hear more about the poets! And that’s a delicate thing about discussing/revealing process–some of those things seem fine to talk about in the workshop situation or educational mode, but might bore non-practitioners.

    But I am not worried about demystifying poetry. I do wish to connect to readers–one way is to prepare them by telling what I can about what provoked the poem, and one way is to relax them by telling them not to worry if something remains mysterious once they’ve heard it.

    And a fine mentor once warned me about some self-legendizing poets he’d met, so I try not to be one of those! (One of his examples was the poet who pretends never to do drafts, just whole and brilliant poems every darn time.) If the poem has marvels and mysteries or brilliance, it’s because the world does, not me. (OK, well, I shaped and selected, so I had something to do with the poem, but, egad, the world is the world!!)

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