What TO DO When Giving a Poetry Reading--

So here's some notes I took at the Skagit Poetry Festival on what TO DO when giving a poetry reading--

What To Do When Giving a Poetry Reading

1)  Leave the audience wanting more!

(If someone comes up to you after the reading and says, "Oh, I wish you would have read 1 or 2 more poems" then congratulations! you were a success!)

2)  Read a variety of poems that you feel the audience would connect with.

3)  Allow for that space/quiet after reading your poem or while reading.  There is no need to fill every moment with your voice.  Let the audience absorb what you've just said before you go on.

4)  DO check your watch and rely on yourself (not others) for how much time you have left.

5)  Stay within or under your time limit.

6)  Do remember that your job is too keep the audience interested and with you, not just to read your work.

7)  Do choose work that people understand by listening and do not need to have in front of them to understand.  And if they do need to have the poem in front of them to understand, make copies for them.

8)  Do be self-aware.

Listen and watch for cues from your audience-- are they shifting in their seats, are they muttering to their neighbor?  --or-- Are they breathing with you, acknowledging stronger poems with body language and/or voice/applause?

9)  Give them something to take away  - this does not need to be a physical gift, but ask yourself, What am I giving my audience to think about during this reading?   What will they take away from this?

10)  Do stay on theme or topic, and if there is no theme or topic, maybe create one for yourself.  It's much more interesting for the audience when things tie together and the reading feels thoughtful and planned.

11)  Do be yourself and don't feel you need to create a persona of what you think a poet is.  A poet is you.  You can wear Gap clothes or dress in vintage.  You can be highly articulate or more slangy.  There is no wrong way to be a poet, but present your best self (as Oprah would say) to the audience.

12)  Be honest and open.  If you're nervous, say so.  If you're happy, sad, if there's something you want them to get out of your reading or listen for, tell them.  Connect with your audience.

13)  Do remember the audience is there because they want to support you (not scare you or bring you down).  You are one side, they are the other and the poems are the bridge.  Allow them to meet you in the middle and it will be a good reading.

14)  Afterwards, if someone wants you to sign your book for them.  Look them directly in the eye and sincerely say thank you.  Give them your time for that moment, make them feel as if they are the most important person in the world.

At the Skagit festival, I had 5 poets sign my book-- Two of the poets I knew and were friends with, but 3 I didn't.  Of those three, one made me feel this way.  The other two were truly polite and wonderful, but only one poet completely directed his attention to me (and I saw him do this to other audience members when they had them sign his book) and it was truly something I appreciated and will remember.

(More on who that was in a later post...)


  1. Thanks for sharing this excellent advice, Kelli. As a frequent audience member, I was sitting here nodding my head yes, yes, yes, yes, yes as I read your list. (And as a somewhat regular reader, I appreciate these reminders and am bookmarking this post to refer back to before my next reading!)

    The other thing that bothers me at readings is when a poet gets up to the microphone or podium and starts flipping through their pages or book, trying to decide what to read. That's work that should have been done before the reading, I think, and can seem insulting to the audience.

  2. Thanks for this and the what not to do post. Perfect timing for me - I'll be involved in my first public reading next month, and I've just book marked both of these to look at again as the reading gets closer.

  3. I really appreciate point #9. Leaving the audience something can give purpose and focus to your reading (and to let it be designed for a specific audience).

  4. Hi Kelli,
    I have a reading tomorrow at Columbia Longview College and am debating myself over whether to create a theme. I don't know if that always works...I like it best when the poet also breaks theme to do something he or she really wants to add. Maybe that's what I will do.

    I'd also add -- Allow yourself a certain vulnerability at your reading. Risk something. Do something you haven't tried before. Let your audience know this so that they understand you are not a performing doll but a person who is doing something special just for them.

  5. Matthew-- That flipping through the notebook also annoys me. It does send the message that "this reading wasn't that important and your time isn't important either..." Yes, plan what you read ahead of time!

    Jennifer-- You're welcome! Have a great reading! Let us know how it goes.

    Jim-- Yes, #9, #9, #9, is an important one. I think is one of the things that makes a great reading.

    I agree about taking a risk. That's a great addition!

    As for theme, I think I should clarify that I wasn't just thinking a theme on subject, such as I'm going to read all my poems about my father's death, but something that ties it all together.

    One reading I told the audience, "Tonight I'm going to read all the poems I've never read to an audience." When I read each poem, I began with why I never read the poem -- "I never read this poem because I was concerned about the repetition," "I've never read this poem because it has the word 'anesthesiologist' in it and I'm always afraid I'll stumble over that word..." etc.

    I do like starting a theme and breaking it though, that's very much like a poem, then the audience doesn't know what to expect.

    But I do think the key is planning it out in advance (which you always do, so I'm not worried!) ;-)

  6. I came on to make a point just made: to plan what you'll read and not be flipping around searching. But I also wouldn't mind someone who did NOT plan what to read and randomly opened her/his book and read whatever was on that page. It could be a "potluck" reading, and might be fun. Another piece of feedback could be this: if you are only given a brief time to read at a shared venue (like, 5 minutes), pick poems that need no or very little set up/explanation. Allow for some silence between readers and poems, and don't overwhelm the audience with more "context" at a rushed or long event. I really appreciate Susan's feedback--how many of us have been to events where the poet has read something so often there is no longer risk, vulnerabilty, or passion in the presentation.... Can this passion be courted or "acted," for the sake of the reader? -Nancy

  7. The most essential thing for me, when I'm reading poems to an audience, is to try to get myself emotionally into the place where the poem is coming from.

    (This helps a lot with several of the things you've said here, and that some of the commenters have said -- connecting with the audience, being present in the moment, opening up to my own vulnerability, these among other things.)

    I also make a point of concentrating on pronouncing the words clearly as I'm reading. This seems like an obvious no-brainer, and I guess it is, but I've also found it helps with getting through moments of nervousness or stage fright, if my mind goes blank in the middle of a reading, etc. I can just pay attention to pronouncing the words, one after the other, and after a few moments my mind comes back and the reading keeps going, seamless.

    A useful practical thing I learned long ago from one of my early poetry teachers: read "mouth speed" (as he put it), not "eye speed." When you're reading from a page, your eyes tend to read faster than your voice can keep up with.

    If you read at the speed your mouth wants to go (instead of the speed your eyes want to go), it will help with the second item above (pronouncing the words clearly), and it helps also with drawing out the sound qualities of the words in the poem.

    Once when I was talking with a friend about this, I picked up a newspaper and read a paragraph out loud each way -- first eye speed, then mouth speed -- and even with an "ordinary" piece of writing from the newspaper, we could both hear the difference.

  8. Generally this seems like good advice, coinciding with my experience reading poems.

    I disagree with point 13 however, when I hear poets read and I do not like their work (because I have no empathy for bad artists) I will make an effort to show the contempt I have for their meager poems. The type of fluffy "lets support and encourage each other" always makes me feel suspiscious that the writers really are not that good. ... Giving a poetry reading to me is not very different from performing music - it should be exciting, intimate .... executed well

    I'd disagree with point 11 as well. In my mind there certainly is a wrong way to be a poet - poems that are so bad I'd spend an hour with my friends making fun of them. The world is chock full of bad poets and bad poetry.

    Anyway, interesting blog, hope you give mine a look.


Post a Comment

Always love to hear from you...and the anonymous option is open for those feeling shy.