Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

Make Your Poetry Reading More Like a Festive Party than a Forced Eating of Rutabagas


I must be honest:  I never thought much about what to bring with me to a poetry reading until last April.  Don’t get me wrong—I did the obvious things.  I checked to make sure I had enough poems to read and a few extra for good measure.  I brought more copies of my  chapbook than I thought I could sell, along with plenty of money with which to make change.  I even thought far enough ahead to create order forms, for the people who wanted my chapbook but didn’t bring enough money with them.

But then, in April, I read this post by Kelli Russell Agodon, which made me think about poetry readings in a whole new way. A poet could bring handouts!  A poetry reading could have a door prize!  It would all feel so much more festive.

Kelli described (and took photos of) the bright colored copies of one of Susan’s poems, which were on the chairs when the audience arrived, and which they later held up when prompted.  At the beginning of the poetry reading, a young man passed out mint leaves.  At the end, a basket of lavender chocolates made the rounds.  One of Susan’s poems talks about throwing a ball, so after warning the audience, she tossed them a ball, and the person who caught it won a prize.

Immediately after reading this post and Susan’s post where she talks about what she learned (reprinted as a post on this site not too long ago), I started thinking about my own poetry readings.  What would make sense to have on hand for audience members?

I haven’t come to any conclusions.  As I’ve looked at themes in my poems for my forthcoming chapbook, I’m struck by how many metaphors come from my experiences in an office, but the idea of handing out shredded paper or office supplies doesn’t appeal.  I have several poems that mention exotic fruit, but it’s not always possible to find pomegranates.  A bottle of wine might make a nice door prize.  Or perhaps a fruit basket would be better, since I’d hate to give a bottle of wine to a person in recovery.

I also like the idea of a single poem on people’s chairs, perhaps with my contact information on the bottom.  I don’t want to give away too many poems, since one of the purposes of a poetry reading is to generate some book sales.  But perhaps a poem might prove tempting.

Dave Bonta wrote a previous post about bringing text to a poetry reading, and he talked a bit about technology.  Instead of paper handouts, we could bring ways to project our poems onto a screen.  In some ways, I love this idea.  I love the thought of a more multimedia presentation.  I’ve been experimenting some with videopoems, although I’m at the more rudimentary stage of creation.  I choose photos taken by me and my friends, and I pair them with lines from my poems.  The same thing could work nicely at a reading.  And if I was reading in a busy bookstore, I imagine I might attract more attention that way.

Of course, the downside to anything that involves non-paper media is that I’d have to rely on technology in a way that makes me uneasy.  I know what my voice will do.  I can’t always be sure that all the technology equipment will work easily in a different space.  Far easier to bring paper handouts.

And chocolates!  I must look back through my poems to find out if any of them would work as an inspiration for a chocolate handout.  Or maybe I should look to find chocolates with bits of exotic fruits.

I know that some of you might write in to say that the poems should be sweet enough to stand on their own.  At one point, I would have agreed with you, that poetry should be its own reward.  But after twenty years of teaching, I also understand the benefits of a treat.  I like the idea of a poetry reading being more like a festive party and celebration than a dreary affair that we attend because poems are so very good for us.

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.

6 thoughts on “Make Your Poetry Reading More Like a Festive Party than a Forced Eating of Rutabagas

  1. Kristin: Teachers understand the benefits of treats, indeed! I use Hershey Kisses to encourage kids in my not-for-profit’s reading programs (i.e., recite a poem, learn word-of-the-day), but expected teacher-friends to decry the practice as bribery. Nope, I was just the last to know.

    I love your idea of sweets at a reading, confections as tasty as confected words. For $10, you could give your door-prize winner(s) four pieces of even a deluxe chocolate.

    Now if only we could combine chapbook-purchase and cake-walk.

  2. Or tiny soft fruit candies, also a delicacy! Fun post! And fun idea, too, that cake walk!! Hmmm….

  3. Pingback: How to Read a Poem

  4. This post has the best title, Kristin! I like your idea of videopoem photos accompanying a reading – with the right choices, such a photo show could be a long string of slanting suggestions that add visual texture to the poem-as-voice.

  5. I’m not all that fond of rutabagas, but I adore fiery rutabaga scratchbacks or bashed neeps when the leftover rutabaga comes around. Perhaps there is a lesson about poetry readings and forced eatings there.

    Or perhaps not.

    I think poets who memorize their poems give a more interesting performance.

    And chocolate is never amiss.

  6. Great post! I was glad to have the reminder and just made a little takeaway for my reading coming up on Monday.

    Marly, I think that the memorization thing works if the poet is practiced enough to “perform” the poem rather than read it well. ( I do think that there is a distinction between the two. ) If you are memorizing, though, I do NOT enjoy poets who look up at the ceiling or out into the wild blue yonder as if that’s where the words are. If you are going to memorize the poem, look at your audience!

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