Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

10 Things I Learned About Giving Poetry Readings


Some excellent advice from Susan Rich at The Alchemist’s Kitchen. Thanks, Susan!

1. People like to laugh. I wanted my friends and family to have a good time. Since many of my poems deal with heartbreak and aging, this is not a simple task. How to strike the balance between play and profundity? I made sure to include a few lighter poems. I spaced them in-between more somber ones.

2. Make it inter-active. This was my first reading for The Alchemist’s Kitchen so I wanted a party-like atmosphere. Since this was also the Broadsided Post-a-Thon weekend, I printed up broadsides of one of my poems and before I began my reading I had everyone hold up their colorful copy. This brought everyone together in a communal effort. I took a photo of the group and have submitted it to the contest. I promised to let everyone know if I won.

3. Read at a pace slower than you are used to reading. I re-learned this listening to Katherine Whitcomb’s reading last week. Poetry lives in the air; let it linger there so others can take it in, apprehend it. Nerves will push you to speed up, practice reading slowly and clearly. Listening to poetry takes effort by your audience; you can help them by slowing down the lines.

4. Pay tribute to your community. I spent the first few minutes thanking my sisters for flying in from San Fransisco for the day, John and Christine – the awesome owners of Open Books, my South Grand Street Poets, COPR’s (Community of Poetry Readers) and fellow BooklLift members for supporting me. I am deeply thankful for my poetry community.

5. Give prizes! Okay, I only really gave one prize. My final poem, “Letter to the End of the Year” has a line about throwing a ball and so I warned everyone beforehand that I would be throwing a ball into the audience and that the recipient of the ball should see me afterwords . The prize: a limited edition broadside produced by Joe Green of peasandcuespress went to Martha Solano. A lovely final moment to the reading.

6. Lavender chocolate. Yes, that’s right. Everyone received a piece of lavender chocolate (again, associated with a particular poem “Curating My Death”) to eat, on cue, when lavender chocolate appeared in the poem. The backstory: three days before my reading, I’d emailed Christine to ask her about creative ideas for my reading. She gave me a lovely list of what other poets had done (sung songs, showed movies, played tapes) and ended her email with “anything but chocolate.” And in that moment, handing out chocolate became the thing I most wanted to do.

7. Practice, practice, practice. I spent hours deciding on which poems to read and in what order. I read the work aloud over and over so my mouth would know what to do. I wrote out page numbers and marked pages in the book so I would be able to move with some fluidity through the pages. I was so nervous that often I had to read my notes 2 or 3 times to find the page numbers. I had confidence that everything I needed was in those pages because I had gone over it so many times.

8. Provide visuals. Since the middle section of my book is based on the photographs, paintings, and imagined life of Myra Albert Wiggins, I wanted the audience to be able to visualize some of her work. I don’t own a projector so instead I downloaded an image off the internet, printed up 40 copies, and glued each copy to a postcard. A number of people told me it was really helpful to have the image in front of them when I read the poem.

9. Make the event your own. I know giving out chocolate and prizes isn’t right for everyone or for every book, but it worked for me, for this book. Doing something outside the box, something that people would enjoy and perhaps remember, was important to me. It took extra work but it was well worth it to make the day my own.

10. Your cool idea goes here. I went to many events to study what other poets and writers do to make their events successful. One other thing I learned: bookend your reading by starting and ending with strong, clear, powerful work. And share ideas: let me know what you’ve done that’s succeeded or what reading you attended that stays in your mind as a great one.

Author: Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

7 thoughts on “10 Things I Learned About Giving Poetry Readings

  1. Wonderful, playful, delightful ideas! I love the spirit of this article and these great suggestions. I love the chocolate idea…how unusual to have the audience experience a taste that relates to poems. So inspiring.

  2. Thank you Susan, and thank you Nic. Wonderful. I’ve only been recently even considering reading aloud for a group of people (counter to my history, but a history I’m willing to consider differently!).

    Yea, and reading is performance (in the playful way) you here suggest. I do like that rather much. Good useful practical advice. (let big drama of any extraneous sort take a rest!) Chocolate, peaches, balls, balloons… all possible. And I do take to heart that no poem is complete until “received”, so what you shared only more opens the door to that shared experience and participation. Big red balloon for you!

  3. The lavender chocolate reading! Love this, thanks, what a joy to read!

  4. i love your ideas! i do think the audience wants to know that the poet appreciates them being there, and i think doing things to make the experience distinct from watching tv/video is a great, great strategy. as long as the poet stays true to her personality on the method she chooses to engage/interact this could be very powerful! thanks for this!

  5. Right on the money. A poetry reading can be serious without being solemn and fun without being trite. Great ideas here.

  6. I read this post on Susan’s blog a while ago, and I enjoyed it again. I “stole” her broadside idea at a launch reading for my chapbook, and the audience loved it. I do agree with Carolee that whatever the poet decides to do has to fit the poet’s personality.
    I had forgotten about the postcard idea -I really love that one, and it would be easy and affordable for most poets to do with a home printer. Thanks, Susan.

  7. Pingback: Make Your Poetry Reading More Like a Festive Party than a Forced Eating of Rutabagas | Voice Alpha

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