On reading poetry in public

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For the longest time, I resisted public speaking—out of fear, discomfort, whatever you want to call that particular variety of head trash. Back in June I finished the first level of Toastmasters (10 speeches). As I wrote then, something had finally clicked for me (I think part of it is called “rehearsal”!) and I started to appreciate the experience.

Recently I’ve had two chances to read some of my poetry in public, and I have a third event coming up this week. I’ve been surprised how much I’ve enjoyed not only the performance and the audience response, but the process of deciding what to read and what to say.

How do you give the audience a sense of you and your writing in 6 minutes? or 10? or 15?

Six minutes allowed more poetry than I expected—I was able to read five short poems with comments in between. I tried to choose a variety that ranged from amusing to bizarre to philosophical, but the comments helped connect them thematically (childhood, summer, etc.). And I ended on a warm, positive note.

I practiced with a timer to make sure I stayed within the limit, and was surprised how close the timing came out for each poem—usually within a couple seconds. Apparently my ear knows the pace at which it wants the poem to be read. Any variation in overall time tended to come from my comments—which I learned to keep brief.

I started to worry when I had to fill 15 minutes! Did I have enough reasonably good work to read?? I read the same five poems as the first reading, and added another five, including a longer poem (3 ½ minutes). It was interesting to consider how to order a lengthier set, and I ended up grouping them around self-image, childhood and, hmmm, let’s say, soulfulness.

I’ve heard enough poets read to recognize how flow and context can enhance the audience’s appreciation for their work. We’d all like to think our poems stand on their own, and often they do, but it sure helps to have a little insight from the poet. When I was rehearsing my first 6 minutes with my Toastmasters club, one of the nicest pieces of feedback I got was “I really felt like I got to know you through your poems and comments.”

For this week, I’m working on a 10-minute set. I’d love to hear from my poet friends–how do you think about choosing work for a public reading? Any advice or tips you’d like to share with us novices?

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Andy Warhol was wrong!

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Even though I’ve already had my first 6 minutes of fame, I get 15 more!

The Art of Style, a great little clothing boutique in Raleigh’s Cameron Village, is hosting Mind. Body. Soul. 7-9pm, Friday, October 5, 2012.

The event includes…

  • Nibbles and sips from health boutique Nourish,
  • Artwork by Jarrett Burch,
  • Tunes from local musicians, and
  • Four poets reading throughout the night: Drew Becker, Harry Calhoun, Alice Osborn and yours truly!

If you’re in the area, stop by and join us–it should be fun!