Looking at Language: How to Read Poetry to Others
“Poetry consists of the best words in their best order.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
By Dian Duchin Reed, CC
Since becoming a poet – following a career as a technical writer in California’s Silicon Valley – I’ve found that I have a lot of company. Each year Poetry magazine receives more than 90,000 submissions from all over the world, and every month one million poets and poetry lovers visit the Academy of American Poets’ Web site (Poets.org).
Like many of my fellow poets, however, I found I had a big problem: Reading my poems in front of an audience terrified me. After participating in several poetry readings when my work was published in literary magazines, it became clear that I had a lot to learn. In fact, until I discovered Toastmasters, I had no idea that more was required for a successful reading than simply reciting the poems from the page.
The turning point in facing my public-speaking fears came one day when I was signing up for an open mic poetry reading, thinking out loud about which slot to choose. “If I go first,” I muttered, “I’ll get it over with quickly. Then I can relax and enjoy hearing the rest of the poets read.”
The poet who was next in line overheard me. He chuckled and said, “You sound as if you’re about to go to the dentist.” It was obvious that he, on the other hand, was actually looking forward to his turn at the microphone.
Clearly, it was time for an attitude change. I went to my first Toastmasters meeting the following week and have been a member of Evening Toastmasters in Capitola, California, ever since.
Not only has Toastmasters changed my attitude toward public speaking, it’s enabled me to learn specific tips and techniques that can make an ordinary poetry reading extraordinary. Whether you’re a featured reader at a well-publicized program or a fledgling poet participating in an open-to-all event, here are some ways to ensure the success of your next poetry reading:
• Start small, aim high. Hone your technique with short readings at open mic events before moving on to half-hour-or-longer presentations. (The terms “open mic” and “open mike” are commonly used abbreviations for “open microphone,” referring to an event that anyone can participate in.) Such programs provide an excellent opportunity to share your work with a ready-made audience. Open mic poetry programs often take place on regular schedules in places ranging from coffee shops to libraries. To find one nearby, search on the Internet or in your local newspaper. Arrive early at such events to put your name on the sign-up list, as available time slots often fill up fast. Use a larger font size (say, 14 point instead of the typical 12 point) when you print out the poems you’ll be reading, especially if you’re headed for a dimly lit café.
• Prepare a short introduction. The audience will appreciate your poetry more if they feel a connection to you. Over the years, I’ve attended a lot of poetry readings, given by both amateurs (who do it just for love) and professionals (who are often on tour promoting their latest books). The best readings occur when the poets connect with their audience members by sharing something about themselves, their creative process or the origin or inspiration for a poem. Even if you’ll only read for a few minutes, start off with a personal touch: Comment on the season or on what prompted you to write this particular poem. Preferably, this comment will segue seamlessly into the first poem you plan to read.
• Maintain your connection. Practice, practice, practice. Be so familiar with the poems you’ll read that your eyes are free to rise from the printed page occasionally. Making eye contact maintains your connection with the audience, just as moving out from behind the lectern brings you closer to your listeners and makes you appear more accessible to them. Patrice Vecchione, a poet who runs a writing program called The Heart of the Word, finds it helpful to also “imagine the audience as your friends. Almost always I find one person who is clearly interested and kind-looking. I speak to that person, continually returning to look at him or her, to feel their encouragement.”
• Speak slowly and clearly. As the famous poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once observed, poetry consists of “the best words in their best order.” Poems tend to compress language and strip out the redundancy that’s typical of conversation. Because of this, you’ll need to give the audience members enough time to take in the poem they’re hearing so they can understand it properly. On his Web site for Poetry 180 (which encourages poetry readings in high schools), Billy Collins advises, “A poem cannot be read too slowly.”
Vecchione agrees. “Slow down!” she says. “This may feel like slow motion to you but not to the audience. Remember, it takes time to digest what one hears. A slower presentation relaxes the audience, helps them to trust the presenter.” Used in appropriate places, such as after the title or at the end of a sentence, pauses can be powerful. They add interest, as well as providing additional time for an audience to comprehend what you’re reading.
• Vocal variety. According to poet and teacher T.C. Marshall, it’s important to “vary the cadence [of your voice]; don’t get caught in ‘the official poetry sound’ that too many readers use.” Vecchione recommends that readers “take a deep breath before you begin and between poems or sentences.”
• Use transitional material between poems. Some of the least interesting readings I’ve heard consisted of good poems...and nothing else. The longer the reading, the more important it is to provide transitional material that will carry the audience gracefully from one poem to another. Some of the things you might want to mention are the circumstances you were in when you wrote the poem, a specific event that triggered the writing, or a theme that seems to keep showing up in your work.
• Respect time limits. If you are a featured reader, end while your audience still wants to hear more, not after their eyes have become glazed from overload. If you are at an open mic event, staying within your allotted time limit shows respect for your fellow poets, who are also eager to read. Refrain from cramming as many poems as possible into your reading, as this will result in either reading too fast (and sacrificing clarity) or going over the time limit. Rather than squeezing in one last poem, leave your audience with a memorable ending.
Thank you, Toastmasters!
These days, when I read poetry to an audience, I find I’m more at ease ad-libbing (thanks to Table Topics), and my throat no longer gets so dry that I can’t swallow. Every Toastmasters meeting teaches me something new, which I can then put to good use at my next reading. Because of Toastmasters, sharing my work with an audience is no longer terrifying, but it’s still a thrill.
Dian Duchin Reed, CC, is a member of Evening Toastmasters in Capitola, California. Her new book of poetry is titled Medusa Discovers Styling Gel. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.