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 present my rules of poetry reading etiquette—starting with the rules for poets.
Keep your introductions short.
Regardless of how long you have to read, keep your introductions short.
If you are a featured reader, and thus have the luxury of more than 10 minutes available, the introduction you give to the host to read should take no more than a minute. Including your entire CV is not only unnecessary, but potentially disrespectful to everyone in attendance. People have come to hear you read poetry, not recite a list of every single one of your accomplishments.
If you are participating in an open mic, feel free to repeat your name for those in the audience who might have missed it when the MC called you to the stage. Otherwise, just start reading. Chances are you have less than five minutes anyway, so why would you eat up time on introductions?
Stay within your allotted time
Most readings—especially those that take place at libraries, or are last on the venue’s schedule for the day—have to end by a specific time. By staying within your allotted time, you ensure that everyone who has signed up to read will have a chance to do so. If you go over, you increase the chance that someone following you will have their time either reduced or cut altogether.
Speak loudly enough for people to hear you
This is especially true if the venue does not have a microphone. You must project your voice if you want people to hear what you are reading. Don’t worry about your voice being shaky—not only does the audience want to hear what you have to say, but they will respect you all the more for overcoming your nervousness or stage fright to say it.
If the venue does have a microphone, use it. If other stuff is happening while you are reading—for example, people ordering food and drink, drinks being made—speaking into the microphone will ensure that everyone can still hear you
Speak as clearly as possible
This goes with speaking loudly. You may be nervous and/or want to get it over with, and thus more likely to rush through your material and/or spend most of your time looking down at what you’re reading. Take a deep breath and let it out before you start reading. Unless the piece you are reading calls for being read quickly, slow down, at least enough so that you don’t end up slurring or mumbling over your words.
If you stumble over a word, just keep going
You may be nervous. Either way, you want to do the best job possible. But you are going to stumble sometimes—we stumble in our everyday speech, so why should reading something on a stage be any different? When it happens, either let it go, or repeat the troublesome word or phrase, then keep going. Nobody is going to hold it against you. And if it happens at the very beginning of a piece, it is okay to start over. When I lived in Japan, I heard Todd Rundgren stumble over the opening line of his song ‘Can We Still Be Friends?’ during a concert being broadcast on the radio. He stopped, laughed, said ‘okay, start again’, and started over. The audience laughed along with him, applauded, and everything was fine.
Make eye contact, at least every now and then
Be sure to make eye contact with your audience now and then. Doing so will help establish more of a connection with your audience. Looking down at your pages the entire time you’re reading makes the entire experience less interesting—plus you risk missing valuable cues that tell you how you’re doing. If someone in the audience smiles at a line, or vigorously nods their head in agreement, wouldn’t you want to see that?
Don’t spend too long looking for a particular poem
Sometimes, no matter how thoroughly you have prepared, that one piece you really want to read seems to get lost amidst all the other stuff you have marked for reading. It’s okay to look for it—but if you haven’t found it after, say, 10–15 seconds, move on to something else. If you know that you will have another chance to read at that particular event (many of them split readings into two segments), you can look for it at intermission.
Keep explanations of your poems to a minimum
Unless you have a really entertaining anecdote to tell about the poem you are about to read, avoid explaining a piece before you read it. If you need to explain what a foreign word means, or why a familiar name or word refers to something different than what people normally associate it with, go ahead—but don’t spend any more time than you need to. And, unless your poem is just a couple of lines long, if your explanation is longer than the poem, it is too long.
Give your audience a heads up about anything affecting your participation
If you have to keep your phone on because you are expecting that call when your sister’s baby is born, or if you have to leave early for some reason and can’t stay long enough to hear the other people reading, or if you have a condition that affects your voice or how you interact with people, say something up front. That way, when you leave right after you read, or need to spend a few minutes alone, people won’t think you’re being rude or just phoning it in.
Stay for the whole thing, if you can
An important part of open-mic readings is that everyone is there to support everyone else, first-timers and regulars alike. So, unless you have a particular reason for leaving early, stick around to hear the rest of the readers. At least stay until intermission.
Next: rules for hosts.
(14 August 2016)