Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

Doing Readings Differently, Part One: The Poetry Pentathlon


Many poetry readings are pleasant, predictable affairs – a host/hostess serves as facilitator and runs an open mic period before introducing a featured poet. Sometimes, the feature goes first and the open mic follows. Sometimes, the reading will be a collection of readers whose work has some connection: all published in the same journal, all reading on the same theme, etcetera. On the other side of the spectrum, poetry slams are the full-contact version of readings. Poets perform with time deadlines, receive scores and feedback from a very vocal audience and judges, and a winner is announced. There are slam competitions all over the country, and the best slam poets hone their performances over time, even developing the equivalent of “greatest hits.”

But what about formats that fall somewhere in between the two? One such format that I have experienced in the Chicago area is called the Poetry Pentathlon, hosted by the Chicago poetry collective Waiting 4 the Bus. Besides producing a print journal called Exact Change Only, this group hosts two monthly Monday readings, usually with an announced “theme” for the Open Mic followed by a featured poet. They also sponsor a First Friday reading series that showcases four or five poets selected by guest hosts. But they also try to expand the boundaries of traditional readings in many ways, and the Poetry Pentathlon is one of them.

Here’s how it works:  poets who sign on to compete are given five prompts to complete about four weeks before the event. (The assignments for the past two years have included a form poem, a rant poem, and a revision of a piece from verybadpoetry.com, along with two other prompts.) On the evening of the reading, poets compete in rounds for each prompt, and three judges from the local poetry community score them on a scale from 1 through 10. There is an atmosphere of friendly competition and genuine camaraderie among the participants, the audience members, and the judges. Yes, it’s a competition, but it is more about enjoying the words and the experience.

Compared to a traditional reading, it is an interesting twist to see how poets respond to the same prompts in radically different ways, and the audience gets an evening of poetry that shows off the writers’ skills with both page and stage. (It is only fair to mention that I was a participant the first year, and I signed on mainly to hone my performance skills.  I ended up  – to my surprise – winning bragging rights in that first competition and served as a judge for the second pentathlon this past September.)

If, as previous posts have discussed, fear is an element that prevents the poet from reading, perhaps a friendly, competitive structure that levels the playing field by having all participants share work created strictly for the competition is way to jump in with both feet. What do you think? How could competition encourage (or discourage) poets to read their work in public?

Author: Donna Vorreyer

Poet. Teacher. Open mind. Open heart. Refuses to grow old.

7 thoughts on “Doing Readings Differently, Part One: The Poetry Pentathlon

  1. it is an interesting twist to see how poets respond to the same prompts in radically different ways

    yes, I can well imagine this as a fascinating experience. In a way, like having a bunch of poets read the same poem aloud and seeing how the poem becomes a different thing with each voice, each reading.

    Great post, Donna – thanks!

  2. Wow, I just love this idea. Personally, I would be very encouraged to take part in this!! Usually, the only “competitions” that exist in poetry-reading-land are poetry slams. My work would not fit in there, but something like this would be a really fun challenge.

  3. As a judge the first year, and a particpant this year, I can say it is very challenging on both ends. It’s amazing to see how people treat the same prompts, and as a poet, it’s not just challenging to meet the requirements of the prompts, but to write something that the other poets might not think of. And then to perform them, alone or getting the help of others, to get the poems across in the best way. It’s fun and engaging!

  4. What a fantastic idea!

  5. Pingback: I’ve got to admit, it’s getting better… « Put Words Together. Make Meaning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 32 other followers