Monday, April 26, 2010

10 Things I Learned About Giving Poetry Readings ...

I am still flying high from yesterday's book launch. Thank you to everyone who came out and filled Open Books with laughter, excitement, and good will. I couldn't have asked for a more wonderful day. Although every moment felt other worldly and magical, I know that a great deal of planning went into each aspect of the afternoon. Here, in no particular order, is what I learned.

1. People like to laugh. I wanted my friends and family to have a good time. Since many of my poems deal with heartbreak and aging, this is not a simple task. How to strike the balance between play and profundity? I made sure to include a few lighter poems. I spaced them in-between more somber ones.

2. Make it inter-active. This was my first reading for The Alchemist's Kitchen so I wanted a party-like atmosphere. Since this was also the Broadsided Post-a-Thon weekend, I printed up broadsides of one of my poems and before I began my reading I had everyone hold up their colorful copy. This brought everyone together in a communal effort. I took a photo of the group and have submitted it to the contest. I promised to let everyone know if I won.

3. Read at a pace slower than you are used to reading. I re-learned this listening to Katherine Whitcomb's reading last week. Poetry lives in the air; let it linger there so others can take it in, apprehend it. Nerves will push you to speed up, practice reading slowly and clearly. Listening to poetry takes effort by your audience; you can help them by slowing down the lines.

4. Pay tribute to your community. I spent the first few minutes thanking my sisters for flying in from San Fransisco for the day, John and Christine - the awesome owners of Open Books, my South Grand Street Poets, COPR's (Community of Poetry Readers) and fellow BooklLift members for supporting me. I am deeply thankful for my poetry community.

5. Give prizes! Okay, I only really gave one prize. My final poem, "Letter to the End of  the Year"  has a line about throwing a ball and so I warned everyone beforehand that I would be throwing a ball into the audience and that the recipient of the ball should see me afterwords . The prize: a limited edition broadside produced by Joe Green of peasandcuespress went to Martha Solano. A lovely final moment to the reading.

6. Lavender chocolate. Yes, that's right. Everyone received a piece of lavender chocolate (again, associated with a particular poem "Curating My Death") to eat, on cue, when lavender chocolate appeared in the poem. The backstory: three days before my reading, I'd emailed Christine to ask her about creative ideas for my reading. She gave me a lovely list of what other poets had done (sung songs, showed movies, played tapes) and ended her email with "anything but chocolate." And in that moment, handing out chocolate became the thing I most wanted to do.

7. Practice, practice, practice. I spent hours deciding on which poems to read and in what order. I read the work aloud over  and over so my mouth would know what to do. I wrote out page numbers and marked pages in the book so I would be able to move with some fluidity through the pages. I was so nervous that often I had to read my notes 2 or 3 times to find the page numbers. I had confidence that everything I needed was in those pages because I had gone over it so many times.

8. Provide visuals. Since the middle section of my book is based on the photographs, paintings, and imagined life of Myra Albert Wiggins, I wanted the audience to be able to visualize some of her work. I don't own a projector so instead I downloaded an image off the internet, printed up 40 copies, and glued each copy to a postcard. A number of people told me it was really helpful to have the image in front of them when I read the poem.

9. Make the event your own. I know giving out chocolate and prizes isn't right for everyone or for every book, but it worked for me, for this book. Doing something outside the box, something that people would enjoy and perhaps remember, was important to me. It took extra work but it was well worth it to make the day my own.

10. Your cool idea goes here. I went to many events to study what other poets and writers do to make their events successful. One other thing I learned: bookend your reading by starting and ending with strong, clear, powerful work. And share ideas: let me know what you've done that's succeeded or what reading you attended that stays in your mind as a great one.


  1. You offer some great pointers, suggestions, and ideas. Thank you for taking the time to make them available. I will be able to use them when I read for an upcoming arts festival.

  2. Great suggestions, Susan. I never spend enough time rehearsing my difficult-to-read poems, and I always regret it. But tonight, thanks to you, I will recite an recite in preparation for my readings on Tues, Thurs, and Friday. Thanks for the reminder, and thanks for a wonderful reading, some very delicious chocolate, and a wonderful broadside of one of my fav poems of yours.

  3. Susan,

    Your reading was absolutely inspiring! And your tips are incredible! I do think it's so important to make a reading special for your audience and you did. Thank you! A wonderful wonderful time!

  4. Great tips! Thanks. I love the little gifts and communal action! I read slowly, too, and have learned that listeners really do appreciate it.

  5. Susan,
    You are on a roll! Just read your poem on linebreak. Congratulations!

  6. Thanks drew --- It was fun to see that today!