Chapter Ten: Reading Your Poems to an Audience
In addition to publishing poems online or in print, another way to share your poems with the public is by reading them at an open mike event or at a more formal reading. Since poetry is an oral art, presenting your work this way is more natural to poetry’s auditory nuances; as anyone who has listened to poetry read aloud knows, the impact can be more powerful than when poems are read silently in one’s head. Some poets are very good at delivering their poems out loud to an audience. Other poets are not. I have attended readings where I was brought to tears by the power of beautiful language. And I have attended readings where I was nearly brought to tears for another reason. One reading by very well-published and respected poets was so intensely slow and monotonous that I thought I might never attend a reading ever again.
If you are writing poetry seriously, there is a good chance that you will be called upon or given the chance to read to an audience. At the very least you will be reading your poems in class to your workshop peers, a captive audience who, too, deserve to hear the poem delivered in an effective way. This chapter will provide you with tips and approaches to make sure your poems inspire listeners and to make the process enjoyable and rewarding for you, too.
Want to Read
How many of you have attended a poetry reading or listened to poets read online? If you have attended readings before, think to what made the reading enjoyable or made you wish you were somewhere else—anywhere else.
Listen to the following poets read their poems and identify the approaches they use to pull you into their worlds:
Kwame Dawes, “Tornado Child”
Matthew Dickman, “Slow Dance”
Bob Hicok, “Calling him back after layoff”
Li Young Lee, “The Gift”
Shara McCullum, “Psalm for Kingston”
Naomi Shihab Nye, “One Boy Told Me”
Sharon Olds, “I Go Back to May, 1937”
Many of the poems above are taken from the PBS site “Poetry Everywhere.” Browse the site and sample even more readings. Which poets are you drawn to? Why?
If we look at the characteristics that mark good readers, we frequently find these traits:
- A voice loud enough to hear
- A slow to moderate pace
- Heightened inflection, cadence, and intonation
- Eyes lifted from the page
In contrast, readers who bore the audience show the following traits:
- A clear state of not wanting to be there
- Speaking too quietly
- Monotone delivery
- Not looking up from the page
The poets on the “Poetry Everywhere” site all read differently. Some, like Kwame Dawes and Shara McCullum, are very animated and willing to perform—they sing, they create voices for dialogue. Others, like Bob Hicok, rarely lift their eyes from the page. Whereas Naomi Shihab Nye in a crowded room is intimate with the audience and even interrupts the poem to better explain herself, Sharon Olds alone in a room reads from the book intensely but with distance. All of these poets portray ways to read that can help you deliver your own poems effectively. You do not need to sing. A poetry audience is generally very forgiving, supportive, and possibly one of the most attentive audiences anyone could stand in front of. We simply need to want to read.
Even if you are uncomfortable in front of an audience, the good news is that strong reading skills can be learned, practiced, and perfected. And the number one thing you need to do to be a successful reader is to want to be there. If you feel good about your poems, if you want to read your poems to an audience, you will take the time to read them in a way so the audience will understand. Listeners will most likely not have the poems in front of them, so it will be up to you to hand them the words at a pace that permits them to follow along.
What types of opportunities are there for poets to read in your area? At your college? In your community?
Tips for Reading
Generally speaking, poets tend to be shy and often introverted. Writers work in solitude, and being in a room of poets is nothing like being in a room of actors or theater people who spend most of their time around people. Yet, when poets read, they often channel some of the skills used by performers, even if it’s just speaking up and slowing down. It helps to lend the reading a little bit of drama, breathing life into the poem’s speaker, so that the poem read aloud has a beating heart, breathing lungs, and a glowing soul.
Read through these TED Talk Tips about public speaking, which include eating protein beforehand, exercising to burn off cortisol, and not asking anxiety-producing “what if” questions. What other tips might be useful before reading your poems in public?
One of the most common challenges of reading to an audience is managing nervousness or anxiety. Arriving early and settling into your space can help alleviate some of this. If you are reading at a bookstore or café, show up fifteen minutes before the event starts and browse the aisles or order a bite to eat. Just be careful not to drink too much if alcohol is involved in the event. Find your seat and get comfortable. You may introduce yourself to others in attendance or to the host if you’ve been invited to read. Many times an open mike will have a host or director. Introducing yourself and mingling just a little bit can really take the edge off unfamiliarity of the setting. Plus you may make a friend or discover something new.
Breathing deeply can also help to cool your nerves before a reading. Just a few deep breaths slows down your heart rate and helps you focus. Likewise, closing your eyes for a few seconds can help center you, too. All of these techniques can help make your experience a good one, and the more you do them, the easier reading your poems becomes.
Of course, we all know the advice to imagine your audience in their underwear. And if this works, by all means, feel free. The basic point is to realize that your vulnerability is an illusion. All of us are on equal footing. Most of us have been in each other’s position. I realize remembering this may be easier said than done.
Another approach to calming nerves is to have a ritual. Maybe wear a certain something each time you read. Or sip a cup of orange tea beforehand. The routine of doing something creates a pattern in our minds and bodies that makes it easier to relax and prepare for the task at hand.
One way to warm up in a reading is to read someone else’s poem first. This is a way to give tribute to someone you like, and a way to seep into your reading groove. Many poets will choose a poem that reflects their mood for that day or the day’s events. If it is near a holiday, choose a similarly themed poem. If the weather has been snowy, read a poem that refers to winter. Similarly, some poets will tell a short funny story about something relevant to the moment, mood, or day. Beginning with something personal can help situate both you and the audience and introduce you to each other.
General Rules for Readings
Being asked to read poetry somewhere is an honor, and an opportunity to which you should always agree. The more you practice, the better and more relaxed you will become in front of an audience; besides, the skill of public speaking is one that is beneficial to you not only as a poet, but also as a future professional in your field of study. I encourage you to participate in open mike nights on campus or in your communities, and to take pleasure in being part of the poetry community.
The following rules of etiquette will help you when reading:
- Once you know you are going to read, know what it is you are going to read (or at least have it narrowed down) and practice reading it out loud before delivering it to the audience. You may even practice reading it in front of someone and asking for feedback. While you practice, it might even be helpful to make notes in the margins for cues as to when to slow down, pause, look up, etc.
- When asked to read or signing up to read, be sure to stick to your time limit or read a little under. What’s that rule? Always keep them wanting more? A reading that drags on becomes boring and the audience loses interest in the work.
- Be gracious. Thank your audience for their attention and attendance. Thank the hosts for the opportunity to read.
- Smile. Smiling will relax your body, focus your mind, and gather the audience’s attention.
- Stay. If reading at an open mike or with several other poets, don’t walk out after your reading. Stay and support the other readers.
Small, intimate gatherings of poets have been the norm throughout history. The Beats, the Fireside Poets, and the Surrealists all nurtured their art by nurturing each other’s, mostly in friendship. Investigate your community and campus to find an opportunity to read your work and become part of the poetry community. Check bookstores, coffeehouses, cafés, and art galleries. Gather a few friends and go for it!
Alternatively, if you can’t find an open mike, create one! Either approach a manager or owner of a local business, or host a small reading at your place. Ask friends to bring a dish or beverage and make it a potluck.