After working long hours on perfecting and publishing your poetry, you are invited to participate in a poetry reading. If you have never done one before you may be unsure how to proceed. This article is designed to bridge the gap between writing and reading your poetry aloud.
Living in New Jersey, I have the good fortune to participate in the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Foundation’s “Clearing the Spring, Tending the Fountain” workshop series for local teachers and attending many of their festivals. Whenever I read my poetry, I recall a message from the foundation: “Connecting with poems as an aural/oral art allows participants to re-experience the joy of being read aloud to, engage in meaningful conversations with like-minded colleagues, and re-discover how important personal connection is in experiencing poetry as a living art form.” http://www.dodgepoetry.org/schools/spring-fountain/.
Poetry is supposed to be read aloud.
How do you create a poetry performance? Truly, an individual choice, but if you are seeking direction, the two main hints I can offer is to 1) know your audience, and 2) be prepared.
Before you choose your poems, have a conversation with the organizer about who will be attending the reading and do some homework on the background of the organization and the venue. Determine the purpose of the reading, as well. For instance, is this a fundraiser, community event, contest reading, etc. Now, imagine that you are the producer, director, stage manager, and performer. How will you design your reading? Are you going to alternate ballad and upbeat poems? Do you want to build to a crescendo and then conclude with quieter poems? Do you want to include humor or present a more somber reading? Have extra poems ready in case your reading is going faster than intended or the audience requests an encore.
Practice your reading in front of family or friends paying close attention to elocution and time, if there is a time limit. Ask for feedback. Poets often paint images with words. Leave the audience enough time to visual those images. Play around with the order of the poetry. It may be appropriate to read another poet’s poem during your reading. There are many reasons to read someone else’s poetry. For instance, if you wrote a response to a poem with a poem, you may want to share the original. Make sure you credit the author whose work you are reading.
Once you have chosen the order of poems, make notes on them to prepare yourself for tricky pronunciation passages or phrases. Sticky notes can be very handy. Mark poems to be read reading directly from one of your books or magazines. Alternately, you can have paper copies with enlarged type so you can read them more easily. Otherwise, jot down the list of poems on another sheet of paper so you don’t lose track of your order.
Decide in advance if you will memorize and recite rather than read your poetry. Some poets prefer to read some of their poems and recite others. Other poets include commentaries between poems, setting the audience up for the upcoming piece or helping them transition between poems. And yet other artists, do not make any side remarks. Any of these can be effective. What appeals to you?
The Day of the Reading
Familiarize yourself with the space before you read. If you are travelling out-of-town, arrive at the site early. Check the acoustics. Practice reading and do a sound check with the microphone if you are using one. Inquire whether it will be a body microphone or a hand-held. Check to see if there is enough light for you to read your poetry. Ask for adjustments before the reading begins.
Bring your published work to sell if you have it. Also, have a short bio handy in case someone needs to introduce you. Usually, you are asked ahead of time, but if you are not, be prepared!
Invite family and friends to your reading; a supportive audience is always calming.
Most people experience moments of panic, better known as stage fright. Maintaining a normal routine the day of the event is helpful. If you know how to do breathing and vocal exercises, do them. Bring a bottle of water with you to the reading in case you get dry mouth, a byproduct of nerves.
Clothing can be an issue. Wear something stylish which makes you feel good. If you are using a body mic, make sure any jewelry is not getting in the way.
When you are introduced, take a deep breath and enjoy the moment. The audience is excited to hear your work.
Live and Recorded Poetry Readings
Go to poetry reading and poetry festivals. Seek them out. Just like live concerts and theater, the experience of live art forms is vastly different then recorded ones.
However, in lieu of live readings, I would suggest visiting YouTube where you can listen to and watch many past Dodge Poetry Festival readings that have been uploaded https://www.youtube.com/user/grdodge/videos. I have attended the following readings, some of which are available on YouTube.
I have been mesmerized by Kurtis Lamkin’s “Condoleeza” and “The Kwelia Birds” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJTM8K0MtNU. Saddened by Taha Muhammad Ali’s “Revenge” which he read in Arabic and then was re-read by Peter Cole, his American translator, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4fpjDUl1vk. Moved by Lucille Clifton’s concise and transitory poetry https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHJz8lxYaSA. Delighted by Coleman Bark’s reading–well-known poet and Rumi translator–with the Paul Winter Consort.
Won’t you join this illustrious tradition?
How do you find a place to read poetry? There are several ways to locate potential readings. Start with your town library, bookstores, adult schools, local colleges, cafes, etc. may have opportunities. Sign up for poetry workshops. Keep an eye out for fliers in town. Check out contests where participating in a public reading is a condition of winning. Sign up for open mic nights. Think about all the different types of communities you belong to and make an effort to find out about any literature readings. Get a group of poets or artists together and stage your own reading. The more people involved, the bigger the audience! Finally, the Internet and social media have been a good resource as well for many people. Search to your delight. Always do your homework and make sure that the reading is what feels right for you.
Remember, writers, write–poets read and listen to poetry.
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
Margaret R. Sáraco’s poetry has appeared in “Shalom: The Jewish Peace Newsletter,” Free Verse Literary Magazine, Poet’s Online, anthologies Just Bite Me, Passing and Italians and the Arts. Featured readings include, “The Art and Poetry of Teaching,” “Welcome the Sabbath Bride with Poetry and Song,” “Poetry U: An Evening of Spoken Word,” and the JCC MetroWest Poetry Series. Margaret is also a math teacher and union activist in Montclair, New Jersey. Her poetry reading skills come from her work in theater, schooled in the art of oral presentation and theatrical performance, and twenty-one years in education. Also, she has presented at a variety of arts and education conferences. https://margaretsaraco.wordpress.com/