I know poetry readings seem very communal and the audience very much an understanding environment that will embrace your shabby or shabby-chic poetry-reading performance; you want to be casual, play it off the cuff and be organic, go to the drum circle and improvise.
But here's the thing: the audience has already seen so much of that, it's become a cliche. They now want to pull their hair out.
Poetry is a performance at the end of the day and many poets are bad at performance because a. they're not comfortable in their own body (that's why they spend so much time in their heads) or b. they're too comfortable in their own body (virtual exhibitionists taking hostages).
I created a check-list for poets in preparation for an open mic reading...and left out the obvious discourtesies, like don't read fiction at a poetry reading or hijack the mic by reading for ten minutes. If you want readers to form a positive opinion of the poet and the poetry, keep two things in mind: be generous and be courteous.
- Dress for Success: that means don't dress like a homeless person, even if you are unfortunately homeless. Borrow something unobtrusive-looking. On the other hand, don't try to look like a Vogue spread. If people are distracted contemplating your wardrobe (good or bad), they can't focus on the words coming out of your mouth.
- Don't forget to pack: bring your reading glasses (if you need them) and your poems.
- Rehearse: you don't need to memorize your poem, but practice reading with a friend ahead of time. You'll come across like a smooth cat if you do this, fully in command of your beautiful words.
- Listen to other readers...with your full attention: it's a karmic rule, you get what you give. So start giving. Listen to all the other readers. If you don't, they have no reason or obligation to listen to you. And if you think you can listen while multi-tasking, maybe you can--but it still looks like you're not listening and that makes everyone around you feel uncomfortable. This is bad energy to bring to a reading. Besides, if you're too busy to single-task-listen at a poetry reading, you're too busy to read at one.
- Open your voice to your audience: don't condescend to them by reading your poems in a precious style, full of pregnant pauses. Don't deliver the last line as if it's the greatest line ever written. Be friendly. It attracts readers to your poems and to you.
- Open your heart to your audience: like the great-sage-of-self-help Oprah says, be aware of the energy you bring into a room. If you come to the mic with aloofness or arrogance or bitterness, you will only attract that energy back to you.
- Pay attention to the room dynamic: practice taking the pulse of the audience by looking around at their faces before you read. Are they "up" and laughing? Are they bored, quiet and fidgety? If there are 10 or more poets scheduled for that reading, shorten your set by reading only one poem. Or by not reading a five-page poem. It's tempting to want to read more but after one poem, the audience has formed an impression of you. And they know they have a marathon of other readers behind you. They will start to shut down if you read too long. Just come back on another open-mic night and read again. Less is more in public relations. Repetition over time is good.
- Don't preamble-ramble: if you are the main event of a poetry reading, you can be like Gollum and ramble on; otherwise, less is more. The preamble actually upstages the poem. Sometimes poets who are insecure about their poem will try to buttress it up with a preamble for this very reason. Don't sell your poem short this way. Feel free to plug your book or blog or say a line or two. But no more.
- Pick a poem with an inclusive theme: ask friends to locate one of your poems they respond to the best. Don't be self-absorbed. Readings are events for communicating universal ideas, experiences and feelings. My husband has a theater background and has been to hundreds of open music, stand-up and one-man show performances. He says the ones that fail always fail because the content is too self-reflective and not inclusive to the audience.
- Don't forget to bow: thank the audience at the top of your reading or at the end, just like they have given you a gift. Because they have. And smile!
The good thing about open readings, as opposed to poetry slams, is that they offer a safe place for poets to read their work without Night-at-the-Apollo-style heckling. Poets need to be in the moment as much at a reading, paying attention fully and poetically, as they are are when they are at home contemplating the intricacies of their poems.
Some very funny lists of cartoons spoofing poetry readings: