by January Gill O’Neil
In 1996, I had the great pleasure of hearing poet Gwendolyn Brooks read her brilliant poetry at Long Island University in New York City, a few years before she died. She read from a range of work spanning decades, from her Annie Allen poems to maybe her most iconic work, We Real Cool. Brooks’ renditions made me want to be a better reader. She had a booming voice, and possessed a rhythm and intensity that’s as close to “possession” as I’ve ever seen. She was in the moment completely, available only to the work and the audience. I left that evening awestruck — I was privy to an experience I knew I would never witness again.
I think that’s what we aspire to when we read our poetry in a public forum. We want our audience to be captivated. Spellbound. Carried away to some remote place for a brief time before re-entry into the real world. By contrast, I’ve been to enough readings that have been, shall we say, less than captivating. I know I’ve given a few. Maybe the reader was rushed, unprepared, distracted or downright boring. I’ve seen writers who only look down at the page, never acknowledging the audience.
On the other hand, I’ve seen writers put way too much emphasis on a line or a phrase, rounding out every vowel sound as if he or she were in an acting class. (I’m not talking about spoken word or performance poetry — those have their own dynamics and attributes.) Once I heard a poet add unnecessary animal sounds to his poem — it was like being in a barnyard! (No way am I revealing this popular poet’s name.)
Reading your work to an audience is nothing short of a fine art. You are building a relationship with the community, harking back to the earliest of oral traditions. Sharing your poetry in front of an audience can leave an indelible impression, in much the same way Brooks’ reading affected me.
Below are some suggestions to creating an unforgettable experience for both you and your listeners.
Before your reading
Choose your poems in advance. If you’re reading from a book or collection, you can flag the poems you’d like to read or make a list. A good rule of thumb — if you have a set amount of time, read half the amount of poems. So if you have 10 minutes to read, choose five to six poems, depending on their length, to share with the audience. Leave them wanting more.
Be flexible. Allow yourself the flexibility to change what you present based on the audience. If you can sense that you have a lively crowd, read your upbeat poems. If the room’s energy is down-tempo, it might be a good opportunity to read something heavy. If you’re willing to take a risk, you can read something new. Whatever you do, pick poems that balance each other so the audience gets to hear a broad representation of your work.
Do a dry run. Practice makes perfect. If you can record yourself or read in front of a mirror, try it to see if you pick up on tiny gestures that work against you and not for you.
At the reading
Relax. Make yourself comfortable. Find your poems and check the order. Focus your body and your breathing before you begin.
Introduce yourself. You’d be surprised how such an obvious thing like an introduction gets overlooked if you’re reading with a group. Say your name if you have not been introduced or if your audience is unfamiliar with your work.
Break the ice. A short warm-up comment works wonders. It’s nice to follow the last reader with a comment that connects the readings. It also allows you to thank the host and the audience for giving you the opportunity to share your work.
Watch the time. Your reading will go much smoother if you know exactly how much time you have to read. It’s your job to stick to the amount given. If you’ve ever been the last reader on a bill, you know what it’s like to have your time eaten by those who preceded you. Also, running long makes the organizers break out in a cold sweat.
It’s all about you. Your audience is there to hear your work — don’t cheat them out of the experience. Your audience is a minority population: They enjoy hearing poetry read aloud. You can be warm and friendly knowing they want to hear your words. The audience will sense fear and nervousness, but you just let that all go. You don’t have to do anything other than be yourself.
Don’t talk too much. There’s a fine line between saying too much and saying just enough about your work — you will walk that tightrope all evening. Do say enough to briefly introduce a few poems if you choose. If you have references you think will hinder the audience, consider offering a brief explanation to any your audiences might not understand. Give your audience enough to participate with you, but don’t do the work for them.
Stay with the poem. By this, I mean honor the emotional tone of each poem and how your poems build on one another. Don’t give the audience too much time between poems or give them any reason to digress from the moment. They’re waiting for the next one. Keep the audience on their toes. Move them. They want to be taken out of their world for a few moments and live in yours.
Most important — breathe. Enjoy yourself. Take a moment to look out onto your audience. Smile. And then, let your poems sing!
Questions for conversation
How many of you have ever given a poetry reading? How many of you have shared your work with an audience in a public forum? Writing and reading a poem are both solitary acts, but sharing your work provides another level of experience. Tell us your experiences, good and bad, about reading in front of an audience.
January O’Neil is a fellow with Cave Canem poets and co-hosts the NEWS literary reading series in Arlington, Mass. Her first poetry collection, Underlife, will be published by CavanKerry Press in October 2009. January writes at Poet Mom.