Reading Poetry at the Third Thursday Series in Takoma Park, Maryland (9/2011)
Maybe it sounds selfish to say that you should read your creative work to an audience because it benefits you, the writer. Of course, it should be enjoyable to the audience because they have a chance to hear your work the way that you intended for it to be read and heard. In the end, however, giving a reading can help you to improve your craft.
Sound of Poetry
Poetry developed from an oral tradition and the sound of poems remains important. This is true for all poems, from performance work to poems that play with the blank page they are printed on (for example, concrete poems.) In the beginning, poems generally rhymed (it was easier to remember them that way) and were sung. Only later were poems written down and shared in books instead of through song. Poems no longer need to rhyme, but their origins in our voice, language and even rhythm of our own heartbeats, inform the words on a page.
As you write, revise, edit and even proofread your work, you should read your poems aloud. If, as you are reading, your tongue trips over a phrase, that is a suggestion that your syntax or even word choice needs some work. If the poem quite literally sounds the way you intended for it to sound in your mind and mimics the instructions given by the poem on the page (through punctuation, blank space, line breaks, etc.), then your poem has succeeded.
Reading Time Limit
If you are invited to give a reading, you will be given a time limit. Of course, you don’t want to be the poet who finishes too early or drones on and on, so you must practice reciting your poems before the reading and timing yourself. As you read your poems over and over, you’ll notice what words well and falls flat or simply doesn’t sound right. Be sure to practice reading slowly, enunciating and projecting your voice (unless you know there will be a microphone.) If you read at an optimal pace, you’ll be in the habit of reading that way for the actual reading. It is human nature to get nervous and speed along. During the reading, you might try reading even more slowly than you think sounds right.
Commentary on the Poems?
Should you add commentary between the poems as an introduction or background information? There are different schools of thought on this. On one hand, your poems should be able to stand on their own, away from you and any possible explanations. On the other hand, the audience has come to hear you, the poet, and enjoys learning more about the work than might be available on the page. You decide what you feel most comfortable doing. In general, I recommend some information, but not too much. After all, the audience does want to hear you read your poetry.
Choosing & Ordering your Selection
The last thing to consider is the order of the poems. Please don’t be the poet who asks how much time she has left or make the audience watch you flip through pages as you ponder what you should read. Honor your audience and your own work by preparing before the reading. Group poems by common themes or style. Practicing reading your final drafts for the reading will help you to learn new things about the poems and help you to see which order fits best. This might even inform the order of the poems in your chapbook or book length manuscript.
Should you read that controversial poem that makes you uncomfortable or contains something you don’t want anyone to know? No, of course not. Only read work you wish to have published in literary journals or in a book that anyone – from the adoring public to your best friend to family members to ex-partners – might read. Again, as you prepare the short list of poems for the readings, you’ll recognize which ones truly seem finished and ready for the world to read and hear. Perhaps the others no longer belong in your manuscript or to be sent out for publication. This is useful for you to know.
Poetry Reading as Public Speaking
There are many different ways to read your poetry. I recommend attending many readings and noticing the different kinds of styles. You can also look up poetry readings on Youtube and on author sites. The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival has a great collection of videos on Youtube.
As you organize your talk, remember to thank the audience, the host and the other readers, if there are other readers. Make it clear through pauses when a poem begins and when one ends. Before your final poem (or last short series), let the audience know that you are about to end. You might want to thank them again before noting that you are about to begin on your final poem. These signals to the audience helps them to feel comfortable in your hands and lets them relax while you lead them through your work.
Of course, who isn’t nervous before a reading? If I’m sweating and worried about accidently burping into the mike, how can I give a reading that makes the audience feel comfortable? Frankly, public speaking isn’t easy. Practice will help and so will faking it. That’s right, fake being calm. No one has to know that your palms are sweaty or your heart is beating fast. Work on breathing slowly and controlling your voice. After a poem or two, you’ll relax and even start to enjoy it. After all, people have come to hear you read. You have an entire audience listening and enjoying your work. Feel the energy in the room and enjoy it. You’ve worked hard for this moment.
What other suggestions would you add?