Sunday 22 September 2013

Things Not to Do When Reading Your Poetry to an Audience

Thanks to Facebook friends and acquaintances for their many useful suggestions! I hope anyone who reads their work publicly will take note.

1. Don't go over time. Don't ask if you're over time or coming up against the time limit. You should know how long you have and have planned your poems accordingly.
2. Don't get drunk before reading. Reading drunk is highly unattractive, however you may feel at the time.
3. Don't mumble or whisper. Enunciate your words clearly with good volume. Read at a conversational pace, neither wildly fast nor snail-slow. 
4. Don't apologize or make self-deprecating remarks about the poems.
5. Don't avoid the mic. If it's there, use it, whatever you think of your powers of projection.
6. Don't read a poem you just wrote that day, however good you think it is. 
7. Don't read from a laptop or phone. A laptop is too awkward to hold and maintain eye contact, while a phone is generally too small to read from.
8. Don't arrive late. If you're a scheduled reader, you should arrive at least fifteen minutes before the reading is due to begin.
9. Don't ask the organizer if there's time for a couple more poems. If you don't know if there's time, you're not showing the audience due consideration. 
10. Don't rock on your feet or pace. 
11. Don't play with things in your pockets (keys, change, etc.).
12. Don't give your poems lengthy introductions. Keep your remarks succinct. 
13. Don't neglect the other readers by talking or checking your phone, etc. Give them the attention you hope to receive yourself.
14. Don't read in a single tone throughout your poems. Record yourself and listen. Change what you don't like or what you think may be ineffective. If you can make a video recording of yourself reading, so you can look for mannerisms, etc., even better.
15. Don't keep your face in your book/pages. Make regular eye contact. 
16. Don't immediately flip through pages to the next poem as soon as you have finished one. Allow enough of a pause at the end of a poem that the audience is clear that it's finished.
17. Don't say where poems have been or are going to be published. It makes you seem insecure and/or arrogant.
18. Along the same lines, don't tell the audience who likes this poem--a famous author, your workshop group, your mother, etc. It won't dispose the audience to like your poem too.  

I suppose 9 and 16 annoy me the most: the former seems self-indulgent, while the latter creates confusion and makes it hard to enjoy the reading.


  1. Oh, I love this list. Thank you Carrie.

    Allied to 16 - not leaving enough of a space between poems for the audience to spend a moment appreciating what's just gone.

    So there has been a moving, wonderful experience - immediately followed (and undone to a certain extent) by 'And there's this one which was written in the bath...'

    1. Exactly! Suddenly the experience you were having of a discrete poem becomes blurred and lost. Ahg!

      Thanks for commenting, Vanessa! I hope we meet again before long!

    2. This is good and very well thought out. It should be posted on every spoken word door =;-)

  2. I love all of these! Here are more?
    * don't spend most of your time shuffling through pages, mumbling to yourself about which one to read next. Have a clear plan and try to stick to it.

    * don't say thinks like "then I'll read ten more" It makes the audience STIR CRAZY.

    * Do not show up with a stack of books or hundreds of pages of paper to sort through. Read from one or two books. Or a prepared list.

    * When time is up, do not beg the audience and/or organizer for more time. It's rude and no one wants to police you or be the bad guy.

    * don't short change yourself or apologize by saying, I'm not really sure about this poem, etc.

  3. Love it - I've already had 20 points in a poem.

  4. ..... or simply perform each of these injunctions in sequence

  5. excellent. And it was fun taking part in the discussion.

  6. Anonymous4:11 pm

    If you need to wear glasses to read – wear them.

  7. You see I thought you were supposed to ask about time as it's what everybody else does, I thought it was a polite thing to do!

    Also advice varies and I have also been encouraged to say where things have been published as part of the introductions to poems etc... along with giving longer intros.

    Interesting about the pages though as I hadn't thought of that before. Though personally I am looking more along the lines of changing over to an e-reader/tablet computer that can have all my stuff on it etc... I think that looks a lot more professional than than, laptop or book (unless the actual printed copy from the publishers!).

    I hate it when people have tones of lose bits of paper which fly off in random directions - though was one myself once and have even had a notebook fall to pieces as reading.

    Thankyou for the article

    Sarah Snell-Pym

  8. Excellent list. Also, I'd add learning how to use a mic and how to adjust it to the correct height and knowing how close to be depending on the type of mic. I also prefer writers not to say, "And this next one is called," every time, as opposed to just reading the title. I've often suggested my students write short notes (even point form notes) for short pithy intros -- not rambling explications, but perhaps bon mots, or relevant and necessary set-ups -- or at least to review how they might introduce a poem well. I do encourage them to review in their mind (like skiers are taught to envision the perfect ski run) how the reading will look/sound before they read. (That also helps with nerves.) I say this as someone, who at the first big reading I ever did when I was 18, surrounded by my writing heroes, read for something like an hour because I didn't know how to stop and no-one cut me off and I was a train hurtling down a hill without brakes...

  9. Wonderful list that every open-mic poetry reader should have nailed to their foreheads. I disagree with #7, though. I think it's perfectly fine to read from a laptop or phone. If the poet can read the text, it doesn't matter how small the text is. I curate two monthly poetry readings, and people have been reading from devices (phones more than tablets, and tablets more than laptops) for at least five or six years. I would say about a third of the readers uses devices like this to read from and it's perfectly fine. Whatever a poet is reading from, the trick is to not keep one's eyes glued there, and to make frequent eye contact with the audience. But reading from devices is certainly the future of open-mics, whether we like it or not. And I have no problem with it all.

    At one reading I MC'd, the featured poet accidentally dropped the paper he was reading from after he read his first poem. He decided to go with what happened -- after reading each poem he let the poem drift to the floor until they were like scattered leaves all around him at the end. I thought it turned out wonderfully.

    I can see other exceptions to points on this list, such as sharing publication credits if that's the tradition at a particular reading (especially if you're a regular reading with other regulars in an established community). It's easy to load up tons of poems into a tablet or other device, so that's much handier than a binder full of poems, but just as it's annoying for folks to riffle through sheaves of pages, it's a pain to have someone take a few minutes to find their next poem on a device.

  10. For years I was active with the Waverley Writers group in Palo Alto, California (where 50 to 100 people would show up each month, and we had featured readers like Eavan Boland and Robert Hass). They had a rule that I wish would be followed everywhere: No apologies for your poem. If you started saying ANYTHING that sounded like doubt or apology, you were booed off the stage. Be confident. Read it or don't. It's okay to set up the context for a poem, or to change the tone from the previous reader, but no apologies!

  11. Another no-no: leaving straight after you've read when there are still more readers. It's fine if you have a train or similar to catch and have forewarned the organizers, but it's very rude if you turn up with a crowd, read first and then leave taking said crowd with you....

  12. This goes with 8: nothing worse than turning up with a crowd, reading, then leaving (taking said crowd with you). It's very rude to the other readers & organizers....

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  14. What excellent advice. Thank you for sharing it.

  15. Anonymous6:53 pm

    Can I put a link to your blog on my blog? Thanks for the advice. Here it is:

  16. I don't agree on asking about time. Not a huge sin. I can loose track of time through sheer nerves, and better not to over-run, I think. It doesn't annoy me when others do it.

    I do remember a reading where every poem was prefaced with details of the journal of publication and the editor's name. Plus a comment on what a compliment it was to be selected given the editor's influence, taste etc. Shocking.

  17. Yep I have a list poem of 20 'don'ts'...keep adding to it!

  18. Having a drink before, or having a wine-glass in hand during, is not the same as performing drunk, and loosening up is often the right thing to do.

  19. This reminds me of something I put together a while ago:

  20. I sometimes walk as I read, mic in hand, and I often let my feet sway to the beat of the poems I'm reading. Have done so for years, and my audiences seem to like it. Michael McFee even wrote a poem about it after my reading at UNC Chapel Hill. Claim your space and use it. And if you are sure you don't need a mic, don't use it.

  21. Frank O'Hara would fail under rule 6: he once read a poem he wrote on the train to a reading with Robert Lowell, who was apparently very huffy about it. The poem was "Lana Turner has collapsed..."

  22. May I add - Note the length of time it takes to read your poem/s and write it on the page / screen (iPad's being an acceptable if occasionally problematic / paper doesn't run out of power). Judge your audience. The poems you expected to read / perform may not be suitable for the audience

  23. Re: mic-- have also read this recently, which many may not have thought of, but which is also very true: refusing a mic directly excludes any in the audience with hearing difficulties by default. Be inclusive and considerate, use the mic, if available.

    Thanks for these, Carrie.