Guest Blog Posts

4 rules for poetry readings – guest blog post by Marilyn McCabe

I went to a good poetry reading the other evening. But, boy, I wish I the poet hadn’t kept doing things that undermined his own presentation of his own work. The poet violated almost every rule in my unwritten how-to-do-a-poetry-reading rule book. Which spurred me to write down some of my rules.

Rule 1: Speak slowly. (But not too slowly.) Practice a cadence that allows you to speak clearly but that seems natural. I’m a great admirer of Carolyn Forche’s reading style, and Lucie Brock-Broido, for example. The poet I heard the other night spoke quickly in his intros to the poems, which I guess is okay, but he didn’t change his cadence much when he waded into the poem, and sometimes he was a line into the poem before I realized he’d gone from opening remarks into the poem. And some fine lines were thrown aside in his rush, like mud from churning wheels.

Rule 2: Use introductory remarks judiciously. Use them to provide backstory or to illuminate some arcane terms or references. If you’re going to introduce the poem, don’t tell the whole story of the poem that is already in the poem. This poet did this over and over again, including, for example, alerting us that there would be a quotation in the poem from poet so-and-so when the poem itself said “as so-and-so said….”

Corollary to Rule 2: It’s not necessary to introduce every poem.

Rule 3: Know what you’re going to read beforehand, and stick to the plan. It is boring and annoying to watch a poet change his or her mind several times in the course of the reading, including the classic leafing through the pages trying to find that one poem it had suddenly occurred to him or her to read, and saying out loud, “I think I’ll read this one, or no, I’ll read this one that I can’t find right now….”

Corollary to Rule 3: Keep an eye on the audience. If it’s getting restive, discreetly skip a poem or two and move toward ending the reading.

Rule 4: Check the mic beforehand, if you can, and figure out where you want your mouth to be in relation to it. I failed to do this at my last reading, and spent the whole time trying to subtly figure out where to be so that my voice got maximum leverage from the mic without popped p’s. This process annoyed me, and probably the listeners too. In the case of the reading the other night, as he moved naturally toward and away from the mic, the sound shifted distractingly.

Otherwise, this poet had a nice onstage presence, humble and engaging, and although my rule book says you should always stand, he perched his rangy length on a stool and that worked fine. I may need to amend the rule book in this regard. I’ll take it to the committee.

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Marilyn McCabe’s latest book of poems, Glass Factory, was published by The Word Works in Spring 2016. Her poem “On Hearing the Call to Prayer Over the Marcellus Shale on Easter Morning” was awarded A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Prize. Her book of poetry Perpetual Motion was published by The Word Works in 2012 as the winner of the Hilary Tham Capitol Collection contest. A grant from the New York State Council on the Arts resulted in videopoem “At Freeman’s Farm,” which was published on The Continental Review and Motion Poems. She blogs about writing and reading at

Categories: Guest Blog Posts

28 replies »

  1. Yes!!! I am going send this to poets that I invite to read in Gaithersburg! I would add a 5th rule: PRACTICE. A LOT. Use your phone and record yourself and listen to it. Read to friends/family, teddy bears, whomever. If there is a time limit, make sure you are under it. When you practice, include your intro remarks.
    Also rule 6: Stand up straight (unless motion is part of your presentation), ixnay fidgeting.
    These are also the first things I teach my teen writing group if for no other reason than I have to listen to them and if I don’t, it is going to be a painful year!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Rule No. 5 Ditch the iPhone. Nothing is more annoying than someone that doesn’t bother to print out their work and has to thumb through partial pages on a smart phone. They should also remember paper will be around a lot longer than the cloud.


  3. Sound advice I will follow! I would like to add a number five or six, no six. Good point about the phone. If you have to, keep it organized. From readings I’d been to too many years back, number six is don’t stop in the middle to recite an in-group anecdote for the sake of your friends in the audience.

    Remaining on your feet is a problem for those with mobility issues. Holding the manuscript takes both hands, so some need a third arm to hold the cane so as not to fall over. Unfortunately…

    If you are the second of a two-person reading, at least half the audience will walk out with the first reader as soon as she or he finishes.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yesterday I attended a reading where the first reader took such inordinately long pauses she bored the audience and went over time. I was tempted to leave, except that I knew the poet that was scheduled to read afterwards would be great, and he was. It’s definitely important to stay within the time limit and to be aware of the audience.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’d add two things: know what you’re going to read and rehearse them, including the intros. As someone said, nothing duller–or more amateurish, than watching someone flip thru their notebooks trying to find a poem. And take your damned hands out of your pockets. That to me is a signal that even the poet doesn’t want to touch that page.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I have had the supreme pleasure of hearing Kay Ryan read – first at Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill – part of LitQuake – then at a bookstore. She follows – maybe wrote – your guidelines…and! She reads each poem twice. And she explains the necessity. Rockstar. Rockstar.

    Liked by 2 people

    • One of our local Ancient City Poets reads his haiku twice for effect and because they’re short. I wouldn’t read mine twice at an amateur reading, but I like this if I am ever lucky enough to book my own readings. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Here are two more- 1- Don’t speak with that damn “Poet Voice.” It’s annoying and boring. 2-Watch the time! It’s rude to the other poets in the room. As a curator in Brooklyn, I give a time limit for the open and for the featured readers. I have to motion to them that their time is up and sometimes interrupt them. Some open mic poets like to have mini features. Some ask if could they read one more, a short one. That “short one” can go on for a few minutes.

    Liked by 1 person

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