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?

16 thoughts on “On reading poetry in public

  1. poetrycurator

    You’re way ahead of me. I’ve done a poetry reading only a few times in my life and I am always too nervous. I do not do well in front of the audience. I am much happier listening to other poets speak. Congrats on your success!

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  2. Wow such courage x well done. I am not sure I could do that yet but I have given talks to women’s groups about my travels to Africa and Russia. they went down very well because the audience was interested in my experiences. I think it will be the same for poetry ~ it reveals so much about you and the things you feel ~ people love to hear it. Enjoy!

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  3. Hi Karin, having read with you and heard you read I can say that you seem to be a natural! Personally, and maybe you share this, I’m usually nervous before I read but settle down into a groove once I start. A big part is being comfortable with your material. You seem to have the wisdom to know — and not all poets do — that some poems are better off left to be read on the page. Some of my best work stays on the page because it doesn’t come across well out loud! Also, the medium matters — giving presentations at work is infinitely harder for me than reading poetry. Something about doing what I love, I suspect. Anyway, keep doing what you’re doing. What you read at Art of Style was outstanding! 🙂

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    • Harry – Thank you for the very kind words. You make an excellent point about poems that work aloud vs on the page. I definitely have some of the latter, which I would not even consider reading to an audience. Some are just too short and dense, requiring absorption and thinking time. Others get some of their fun from the design on the page. And certainly as I think about which work aloud, I consider the rhythmic or melodic sensibility. It is a fun sort of puzzle to pick the right poems.🙂 I’m looking forward to reading with you again, Harry!

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  4. I am relatively new to this but I’ve read every week or two since July. Here in Victoria there are several different poetry groups, ranging from fairly conservative written word poets, who quite literally read their poems, to the more energetic Spoken Word artists who usually memorize their pieces and use all sorts of theatrical talents to make these performance pieces. I’m currently taking a Spoken Word class and am having a lot of fun. Composing a piece for Spoken Word is different too, I need to hear it as I write it, echoing in my mind, not worrying about how the composition looks on the page. You are on the right track with the rehearsing, the more often you recite a piece out loud, even just to the mirror, the better it gets.

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    • Oh, I love the idea of taking a Spoken Word class. I have seen only a couple of performances, but they were fascinating–so powerful. I am definitely closer to the other end of the spectrum, but try to do a little more than just read.🙂 I like the idea of getting out to read every week–I need to find my way to more of the writing and poetry groups around here. Thanks for the comment, David!

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      • I’ll use this to reply to both you and David, Karin. First, yes, looking forward to reading with you again … working to line up something at the Midtown Grille but it’s still in the hopeful phase. David’s comment and your reply reminded of my performance poetry/spoken word days when I lived in Key West during the mid-nineties. Not to knock Raleigh, because I love it here, but it seems so relatively barren poetically, and Key West is closer to what David’s saying — poetry every week, at the Green Parrot, Blue Heaven, seemed like every bar or restaurant had its own thing. I mean, in stark contrast to here,where it you want a mike and a place to set your poems you have to bring your own, they had the equipment provided in the bars and restaurants where we read! 🙂 I’m with you, Karin, would love to figure out a way to get out there and either find or create more opportunities! (But having tried already, warning: It’s hard.)

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  5. Jeremy Nathan Marks

    I don’t have any advice to offer since I have not had the pleasure of doing this in many years. I think it is terrific you are doing this and I hope you keep posting about it. I’m very interested in your experience with this as I am interested in reading my work in public as well.

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