Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What Makes for a Good Poetry Reading?

For the second year in a row, I'm working with a group of college students who are organizing a poetry reading for me. They are all taking a poetry course and have been given the option of doing a traditional research paper or working with a poet on some kind of project. Which would you choose?

I have 7 students this year. At our first meeting I went over some of what I think are the characteristics of a good reading. That's a topic I've given a good deal of thought to in the hope of optimizing the readings I do. Of course, it's not all up to me. A lot depends on the venue, the venue host, and the audience. Here are some of my thoughts on readings.

The Host's Role

1. Good PR is essential. If no one knows about the reading, you can be sure no one will be there. If you're the host, you're obligated to spread the word as widely as you can. Posters, newspaper notices, online calendars, websites, blogs, email lists. It's really disheartening for the poet to arrive and learn that the host never got around to promoting the event. No excuses, Host.

2. Try to make the room comfortable. Arrive early to check the room temperature and the mic if there is one. Arrange the chairs so that the audience is neither too close to nor too far from the poet. If all the people gravitate to the back of the room, threaten them until they move to the front. Likewise, if half sit on the far right and half sit on the far left, ask people to move in a bit. These little things make a big difference in the comfort level of the reading.

3. If possible, provide a good sound system unless the room is small. Don't expect the poet to shout her poems. I gave a reading a few years ago in a coffee shop that had no mic. Coffee machines, chimes on the door, change rattling. Not so cool.

4. Be sure you provide a space for the poet's books to be displayed. Announce to the audience that books are available. If they're at a sale price, mention that. Repeat that. Do your best to help the poet sell some books, especially if your honorarium is small or non-existent. Don't make the poet hawk her own wares. If possible, provide someone to handle sales and make change.

5. This is going to sound cranky, but I'm saying it anyhow. Don't allow audience members to put out their own books for sale. And don't put out your own books. Just don't create competition for your visiting poet, especially if the poet has traveled a distance. Double especially if pay is minimal or non-existent.

6. If you can't offer an honorarium, consider putting out a basket. I did a reading some months ago where such a basket was put out, but guess what! The host kept everything that went into it. I'd driven 5 hours and paid for a hotel.

7. If there's an Open, manage it. Manage it. Have guidelines and enforce them. Many a reading has been spoiled by an Open that got out of hand and went on endlessly. When this happens, some audience members are discouraged from returning and you end up with an audience of open readers who are there to hear themselves. A well-run Open can, however, be fun. Limit the readers to one or two poems. That's it. No negotiating. Got a haiku? That's one poem. Anyone who arrives after the featured poet is finished reading should not be allowed to read. Something about good manners.

The Poet's Role

1. You can help with the PR. Post the reading at your website and blog and anywhere else you can think of. In addition to the preceding, notify people you know in the area that you'll be doing a reading and ask them to bring friends.

2. If the host neglects to put out your books, rectify that right away! I'm putting an exclamation point on that sentence because I have done a few readings where the host forgot about books and I was too timid to bring it up. Then I kicked myself all the way home.

3. Go prepared. Choose your poems before you arrive. I've heard a number of poets say they have to gauge the audience before they choose. Nonsense. That's just laziness. It's annoying and a waste of time for the audience to sit there while the poet fumbles through pages looking for what to read.

4. Time your reading ahead of time. You know how many poems will take up 30 minutes. Plan for that if that's the amount of time you have. Don't go beyond the time. Ever. And don't keep asking the host, How am I doing for time? How much time do I have left? Time for a few more poems? This makes the audience squirm.

5. Try to stay for the Open. If people came to hear you, it seems polite to stay to hear them. If you're driving a distance and have to leave, let the audience know that that's why you're leaving.

The Audience's Role

1. If you're in the audience and planning to read during the Open, please do not work on your own poem while the featured poet is reading. It's incredibly rude.

2. Do not give long preambles to your poem. Just read the poem.

3. Don't make announcements, especially ones about your own upcoming readings.

4. If you possibly can, support the poet with the purchase of a book. It means a lot to the poet. Really.

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  1. I so agree with this being a mood-killer--

    "And don't keep asking the host, How am I doing for time? How much time do I have left? Time for a few more poems? This makes the audience squirm."

    I can't stand it when poets do this. Or if they say, I'm going to read 2 more poems, then at the last minute say, "Oh, I think I'll add one more..."

    Good points!

  2. Hi Diane,

    You've shared some excellent pointers here! I like how you broke it down to host, poet, and audience roles, cuz it really takes all three firing on all cylinders to make a successful reading. It is nice when the host takes care of the reader from start to finish, but when that doesn't happen it's important for the poet to step up quickly and take charge if necessary. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I love how the Seattle poets are all right there with you! I agree that the three part list here is great -- especially since many of us play all three roles at different times.

    My small quibble is with the question of how to introduce a poem. I was at a reading last night and one of the most engaging readers was able to welcome us into his poems by the brief(ish) intros he used.

  4. But that tip is for the Open readers. The featured can blab on at greater length. The featured poet already knows his time limit. Brief okay for the open reader--it's the long-winded intros that are a problem as they slow down the open.

  5. Great post, Diane. A great practical guide.

    I host an annual reading (in Yachats, Oregon) for which I invite prose and poetry writers from throughout the state. It's a self-funded, self-orchestrated event (attracting audiences of 50 to 60) which I produce only because I believe that words need air and celebration.

    To your suggestions, I would add one more: Be thankful! A thank you note, a follow-up email . . A little courtesy goes a long way. I am surprised at the number of writers who do not fully understand or appreciate the time, effort and cost that goes into producing and promoting the event, and ultimately, their work.

    Thanks, again, for prompting a good discussion.

  6. Good reminder, Drew. Everybody likes to be appreciated. A simple "thank you" is so easy. Wish I lived close enough to attend your event.


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