I go to a lot of poetry readings. I have noticed a lot of things, good and bad, that affect how a given reading will go. On one occasion, where another poet’s lack of consideration effectively ate up a good chunk of what would have been my reading time, I got so frustrated that I made up a list.
Now that enough time has passed that I can address this calmly and rationally, I will now continue with my rules of poetry reading etiquette—this time with the rules for audiences.
Arrive before the reading begins
This is always a good idea. Showing up before the reading begins ensures you have a choice of seats, the opportunity to order a drink (where applicable), and a chance to use the bathroom without missing anything. This also helps the host, as attendance is notoriously difficult to predict; by showing up early, you enable the host to set out additional chairs if needed.
If you are late, enter the room and take your seat as quietly as possible
It is not always possible to arrive on time. Horrible traffic, slow dinner service, minor mishaps, and/or other unexpected stuff can and will happen. In those cases, enter the room and take your seat as quietly as possible. Late arrivals are always a distraction; minimizing the disruption your late arrival causes shows respect for both the person reading at the time and your fellow audience members.
Knocking loudly at the alternate entrance for someone to let you in is not okay.
No matter how bored or uninterested you may be by a particular reader or poem, at least make it look like you are paying attention
Chances are that you are not going to like every poem that people read, or like the way every person reads. But don’t be rude. Let your mind wander, if it must. But when it comes to things like checking your phone or getting up to go to the bathroom, at least wait until the poem is finished. Show the same respect others would show you while you are reading.
If you find yourself coughing or sneezing a lot, it’s okay to leave the room for a moment
The occasional cough or sneeze happens. Nobody is going to worry about it. If it persists, though, it’s okay to get up and go somewhere else so that you can either get it over and done with or have a glass of water. Not only will people appreciate your consideration, they will also sympathize with you.
Even if it’s just a token golf clap, applaud when appropriate
Getting up and reading for an audience—and reading your own work in particular—is a big deal for most people. Whether or not you liked a reader’s poem or performance, at least show appreciation for their willingness to get up on stage.
If you can’t stay for the whole thing, at least stay until intermission
Not only is it the polite thing to do, but you won’t inadvertently cause a reader to think they’re bombing because you got up and left during their performance.
Next: rules for everybody.
(14 August 2016)