poetry and performance: how to sing, or the fine art of reading poetry in front of an audience

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'neilJanuary 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.

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17 comments to poetry and performance: how to sing, or the fine art of reading poetry in front of an audience

  • Thank you for these great tips, January! I will use them the next time I read to an audience. Here’s another tip that relates to all of your tips: know how to use the microphone. Even the most skillful readers will annoy their audience if they stand too far away from the mic, or turn their head left and right as they speak, or rustle pages into the mic.
    .
    Thanks so much for honoring Gwendolyn Brooks. I agree with you that her voice was awesome. I heard her in person at age 77 — still booming, intense, rhythmic, inspiring. I sent her a letter of admiration. She took the time to send me a handwritten note (inside a lavender envelope) in quite exuberant penmanship. Here’s what she wrote: “Hi! Thank you, indeed, for your exquisite and gratifying note! I sincerely appreciate it. Gratefully, Gwen Brooks.” Needless to say, I’ve saved the note these many years. A great, famous poet who took the time to acknowledge an unknown fan.

  • Online at poets.org you can find audio recordings of Gwendolyn Brooks describing and then reading her poem “We Real Cool” and one other piece. Wonderful!

  • Reading in public is invaluable experience for a poet (or writer of any kind, really). So is going to readings. Besides appreciating the poetry, when you’re at a reading you should make some notes on the reader’s technique. What really struck you? What didn’t?

    If you’re reading from a book, I would advise typing the poems (or printing them out, if you have the original files) and reading from loose sheets (you can put them on a clipboard or in a binder to keep them in order). You can waste a lot of time flipping through pages looking for the poem you meant to read, and book darts or sticky-flags only help so much.

    Also, you can print in a larger font than most books or chapbooks use. That’s important, because you can’t make effective eye contact with your audience while peering or squinting at a page! Check how the lighting in the venue is.

    Learn to project your voice. Read standing if you can, it’s a lot easier to get voice volume that way.

    And my personal peeve: Don’t overcomment. I went to a reading where the poet spent the first 5 min or so out of a 20-min segment telling their own life story instead of reading poems. I have to disagree with January here: it’s not all about you: it should be all about the poetry. Some poems may need a little context, especially if they’re excerpts or parts of a longer sequence, and that’s fine, but try to keep it to the strictly necessary.

    Donna Vorreyer replied:

    Yes! At the reading series/open mic series that I frequent, the standing rule is “Read the f-ing poem!” which one of our more colorful attendees is happy to yell out if the introductions get out of hand. Let the poem speak for itself…

  • intractability

    Thanks very much, this was indeed a very topical and helpful article. I think the oral translation or delivery of a poem is very important. Really enjoyed this , thanks.

  • Wow. Therese, thanks for sharing that anecdote. It is one thing to strive to be a poet like Brooks and another to strive also to be as gracious a person.

    I am also not keen on introductions.

    I have a reading that is a live-feed project this weekend (four countries participating online from four venues, arranged by StAnza in Scotland). I appreciate the timing of the tips and reminders!

    All I would add is how important it is to watch the time. Many years ago I was visiting another city and reading in a timed slam and went overtime. Someone said to the judges, that is okay, she is a the best. At least that is what the judge repeated into the microphone. Then he was corrected and read even louder into the microphone- she was not the best – she was a *guest*. I could have been spared had I watched the time. :-)

  • i haven’t heard gwendolyn brooks read, but i have had the pleasure of hearing both january and therese read!

    the only way to know how you’re going to tackle reading in public is to try it. :) i’ve only been doing it since august, and i have a lot to learn. i wouldn’t have known the specific lessons i need to work on if i hadn’t given it a shot.

    so yes, practice and be conscious about all these important factors, but also get out there and do it. you’ll figure out what you need to work on by trying it on and watching others.

  • I used to be terrified to read my work – but the more I do it, the more I enjoy it. I try to read as naturally as possible, and I try to rehearse, if not memorize. Although I am not a “performer’ per se, I am acutely aware of reading qualities that I admire and abhor. I’ve been told I read well, and I take that as a compliment. Confidence comes with practice.

    And I too had an encounter with Gwendolyn Brooks! I was a finalist in an Open Mic competition named after her and she actually told me she enjoyed my poem. That was the best prize I could have received.

  • Even with a background in theater and acting, I am more terrified to read my own work out loud than I ever was before going onstage to play a role. This is all awesome advice, January!

    “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.”

    This would have been good advice for me to follow at my first “featured reader” slot a few months ago…I was so scared it was all I could do just to get through my (very rehearsed) poems! Next time, hopefully, I will feel more relaxed and make more space for this.
    Thanks for the great (and very practical) guide to reading outloud.

  • jessiecarty

    Terrific tips January :)
    I think sometimes I get obsessed about time and forget to relax.

  • These are great tips, both in the comments and and in the post. I would urge anyone with an interest in this topic to joing the RWP poetry and performance group.

    Nothing beats practice. Once I decide on the optimal reading of a poem, I will use a pencil to make little marks above the words to show intonation and rests — a kind of primitive musical notation system. I’ve never made animal noises, but I did break into actual song once. That was the only time I’ve ever gotten an offer of sex after the reading. :)

    renkat replied:

    oooo- which animals??

  • Wow, Dave. :-)

    Thanks for this terrific post, January. It’s been a while since I’ve given a poetry reading, but your tips resonate with what I remember.

  • great post! :) as a director of a reading series, i always appreciate potential readers having a previous performance accessible online (video better than audio)–as a reader myself, having my performances filmed in order to find even one clip to be proud of has taught me to be a better reader overall (and to watch all my “UMs” :)

  • Great comments and advice, everyone.

    Jennifer–watching the UMs is something I probably should have mentioned.

    Dave–Absolutely, practice makes perfect. The offer you received sounds like a bonus! :)

    Ren–not on your life!

    Tiel–I guess we approach readings from different perpectives. I think people attend poetry readings to hear how the author interprets their work, so I think it’s more about the person and performance than the actual work. But, of course, the poetry is why we all attend. Two sides of the same coin.

  • Good article and good comments!

    Having video recordings or even audio recordings is vital to chart your progress and lose bad habits.

    Although I am a poet, both pagewise (published) and regularly perform or read my work, the two links I’m sharing focus on a project I did call “important words”.

    I was pleased to know that the Sky Arts team; the One and Other Team, and the BBC camera crew, thought my hour up on the Fourth Plinth was one of the best for a long time.

    Video archive:
    http://www.oneandother.co.uk/participants/Alan_S

    BBC interview (please wait about 40 seconds into the filming):
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8176398.stm

    all my best,

    Alan
    http://area17.blogspot.com
    http://www.withwords.org.uk

  • ravenswingpoetry

    Thank you for the great post on this, January! I am actually reading at an open mic tonight and it was great to have an appropos reminder of what I already knew plus some new suggestions. This was very helpful.

    -Nicole

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