This piece is for poets who are going to be reading a set of 10, 15 or 20 minutes, or perhaps longer – the sort of length you might read as a guest poet or at the launch of your pamphlet or book.
I’ve been lucky enough to have given a few of these readings (although they have been rather sparse lately so if anyone reading this would like me to read, please do get in touch! ) and I’d like to share some of my thoughts.
Of course you will bring your own approach and style to your reading depending on the type of work you write and the type of person you are. Here are some general points and ideas which might be worth considering. I’ve titled this piece ‘Giving a reading’ because you might like to view your reading as a gift to your listeners. Whether they have paid to see you or not, people have come to listen and deserve the best reading you can give them. And you will want your poems to be properly presented.
Stay within the allocated time
Find out how long you are going to be reading. You should contact the organiser if they haven’t been specific. I don’t really like to read for much more than 20-25 minutes without a break, as I think that a 20 minute slot is often enough to give a good taste of a reader’s work.
When you know the time frame you are working within you can choose some poems you would like to read. In the past I’ve changed poems as the mood took me, but recently I’ve found I’m happier to work out a set and stick to it.
Practice as if reading on the night; I like to break the ice by greeting the audience and perhaps saying something about the venue, for example ‘Thank you for inviting me to read. It’s wonderful to be in Slough, the inspiration for Betjemen’s great poem.’
When practicing, I work out and include any intros and links between poems. I always plan to read for at least half a minute less than my allocated time. I’ve learnt that trying to cram in as many poems as possible and reading up to the final second makes for a less comfortable and more pressured reading.
If you read to your allocated time you’ll be able to relax, slow down a little, and enjoy yourself more. If you read longer than your allotted time people will notice, not least those others who are patiently waiting to read. Keeping to time is less essential if it is your book or pamphlet launch, but generally most hosts are acutely aware of what they have to fit in and will probably think it rude if you overrun. Finishing slightly early and perhaps leaving your audience wanting more is better than reading for too long. If people would like to hear more from you, they can always ask you. Think of that 30 seconds you are giving up as a little sacrifice to the poetry gods.
This may seem obvious, but the poem you open with should hold the listener’s attention. Choose poems which that you find easy to read; poems that sing, that follow the rhythms of your heart and the ebb and flow of your breath. Poems that work well on the page may be too dense to work well when read. I tend to choose work that I can read fluently and avoid the trickier ones.
I think it’s a good idea to choose work that is reasonably accessible to the first time listener. Of course this depends on the sort of poems you write, and I don’t think I write many poems whose meaning is obscure, but I might avoid something that would perhaps require careful reading once or twice to fully grasp. I have seen an audience’s attention drift when faced with impenetrable work.
You might want to change pace and the tone of your set in a similar way to the variations one gets at a rock concert (unless it’s a Status Quo concert). Decide if you want to follow an elegy with the brasher, flashier poem, or go for more gradual changes pace and tone. You might like contrast, so follow a quiet downbeat poem with the equivalent of the full tilt high energy rocker to wake everyone up again.
Have you got a ‘funny’ poem? If you haven’t, a good anecdote can get a laugh and be a mood changer.
People like to know where poems have come from, so you could mention your inspiration for a piece. But keep introductions and stories brief. You can say a lot in a few words. You are a poet and brevity is the name of your game. If you do explain where your poem comes from, or need to explain a word, phrase or historical reference, do so as succinctly as you can. Nobody likes an intro that is longer than the poem it is introducing.
As you do in your writing, try to avoid repetitive or unnecessary phrases. I’ve seen poets introduce each poem with ‘This next poem is…err.. one I wrote a while ago’.. You can lose the word ‘next’ for a start – we already know it’s the next poem- and we probably don’t need to know when you wrote it.
Reading new poems
There are places to try brand new poems and places to stay with your familiar ‘greatest hits’. Again, it’s up to you but a new poem may not be finished. Do you want it to make its debut yet? You could save your latest for your next local open mike and go with poems you know from experience that people like.
When you have chosen your poems, read them aloud and time yourself (with introductions.) If the poems don’t fit into the time frame, drop one or substitute a shorter piece. Do you enjoy reading them? Do they fit together? If you don’t think your selection is working, choose different poems and/or re-jig your set.
Reading poems from a sequence
This can help create an atmosphere. Sequence poems can build on one another to make a narrative, much as they do in a book or pamphlet. If you are reading from a sequence it might be best to select a couple to give people a taste rather than taking up the whole space with one aspect of your writing.
Transporting your poems
I use a faux leather-bound black book with plastic pockets to carry and protect my poems. The pockets allow me to keep the poems in the order I am reading and prevent loose leaves becoming drenched in wine or coffee or cascading around my feet when I’m reading.
People will tell you to read from your book or pamphlet to promote it, holding the cover so that listeners can see it. I have done this but never liked having to switch back and forth to marked pages. I might mention that a poem is from a collection and that I have copies available. People will buy your work if they like it, regardless of whether you are holding a copy of your book to read from or not.
On the night (or afternoon) of the reading
Get there early. Find the venue. Have a wee. Check your flies are done up, your skirt isn’t tucked in to your knickers. Say hello to the people running the event and to any other poets who might be about. Check out the space. Make sure you can see. I once had to borrow a torch in order to read.
Have a bottle of water to hand.
When it comes to alcohol, plenty of poets like a ‘loosener’ before reading. Plenty of others won’t drink any alcohol until after they have read. The days of the drunken poetry reading are best left behind. Slurring, rambling, swaying and falling into the audience do little to enhance a reading.
Can people hear you? If you are worried that they can’t, ask the audience. Remember to thank the person who introduced you and/or invited you. If you are reading after an open mike and you are good at thinking on your toes you might want to comment on a theme that came up in another reader’s poem. This will help to show that you are a good listener and appreciate others work as well as being there to read your own.
Hopefully, if you have been given your own reading slot you will have read enough times to be able to relax a little. Your pulse my still be fast, your mouth a little dry, but you won’t be terrified or shaking like you were when you first read to an audience.
My reading has improved a lot over the years and whereas before I used to rush and fidget I now try to keep fairly still, make some eye contact and read at an even pace. I’ve slowed down since I started. In general I’ve noticed that poets who haven’t read much to audiences are in a hurry. I give myself little reminders to take a little breath between title and poem.
Stick around at the end
If you don’t have to rush off to catch train you may be surprised to find people complementing your work or your reading or both. If you have travelled some distance, a compliment or two can make the whole trip feel really worthwhile.