Don’t Let Your Poetry Reading Send Your Audience to Dreamland
I often read poetry in bed. It quiets my mind and helps me fall asleep. Listening to others read poetry sometimes puts me to sleep, but that’s embarrassing when I’m sitting in a group of people.
I have attended poetry readings where I became involved immediately. What is the secret? Is it good poetry versus bad poetry? No. The answer is Performance! Thomas A. Williams says in his book Poet Power, “Every good dramatic performance, as Aristotle taught two thousand years ago, has a beginning, a middle and an end. It builds slowly, reaches a climax, and then comes to a strong and satisfactory conclusion. Your reading needs to do the same.”
If you have attended a reading of a professional poet like Billy Collins and were drawn into his performance and hated for it to end, you can bet he planned that reading from the first to the last poem. He knew just what he was going to say about each poem to lead you into it and help you love it. He didn’t get up to the podium, stand there in silence and thumb through a stack of papers, trying to make up his mind what to read next while you sat wondering if you should pick up some milk on your way home.
Even the best poetry loses me when it’s read too fast, with no expression, or when read without introduction or a break. The talk between poems is what Williams calls patter. He believes in using humor to warm up the listeners. “Kick things off in a light vein, establish a tone of fun from the very beginning” Williams says.
A congenial personality, a smile and interesting patter goes a long way in selling you and your poetry. The audience won’t feel comfortable with you if you jump into your reading without some comments to introduce yourself first. The reading will be over before they even begin to focus attention on your poetry.
Williams also says in Poet Power that he believes in letting his audience know it is perfectly acceptable to clap, laugh, whistle or shout encouragement during his reading. At most poetry readings “there seems to be no socially acceptable audience reaction other than polite Victorian restraint. The poet finishes reading a piece and is met with dead silence. The poet has no idea where he stands with his audience. If they like it, silence. If they don’t like it, silence…It is their love of poetry that keeps them (mostly) awake.”
When you look out at your listeners and see eyes glazed over or heads bowed as though in prayer, you aren’t selling yourself or your poetry. You might have to wake some to let them know you’re done.
Check out my reading, Thursday, February 16, at John C. Campbell Folk School at 7:00 p.m. Mary Ricketson, an award-winning poet is the other featured reader for the evening.