It’s one of those things that is hard to do well but is none-the-less important to do anyway. Why is it hard? Why is its realization often imperfect? What might one do or aim for when attempting to read one’s own poetry for the public? Well, before I write down some responses to those challenges, let me say that these are not the opinions of an expert or the summary judgements of some important critic, but only observations of someone who attends readings and occasionally reads my own verse aloud before a live audience.
Why is it hard? Perhaps I’d rather say it this way: there’s no good reason it should be easy. The writing of poetry, emphasis on the second word in that sentence, is not a public act. For many of us it takes extraordinary private concentration to create our poetry — and too, we often put in it things we would otherwise never share face-to-face. As a result, a great deal of poetry, particularly our present age’s poetry, derives its power from whispers to ourselves in the dark. Why should the same person who does that writing be any good at reading it aloud?
I attend at least one poetry reading every month and I’ve seen over a hundred poets read. Let me be honest about myself: I’m not a very good listener. I have a racing mind, and any spark that a reader’s words set off, has a tendency to cause my mind to follow it off into my own bonfires. And if the reader’s own tinder is damp, I as a poet myself will spend internal time noting how poorly the campfire chances are progressing. How much better (or worse?) is the average poetry reading audience member in listening? I can’t say, but I fear I’m a bit worse than the average audience member, but that doesn’t mean I don’t notice some ways poets reading may fail more than others.
I’ll summarize one class of failure with a general statement of an issue: not convincing me that the words the reader is sharing are important to be shared. Yes, yes, I know this is hard. Most poets don’t have the audience or objective awards and rewards to be reinforced that their stuff is any good. And those that do (or those that inflate what small elements of that they’ve received) can forget that there may be audience members who still need to be convinced. If you make that case in your manner of presentation and in any introductory speaking you do before and between poems, you’ve improved the chance of the audience paying attention.
Oddly, general posture and “stage presence” doesn’t seem to have as much effect as I might guess it would. Readers who make extensive eye contact vs. those whose heads are downcast to the page on the podium — is the former better than the latter? Probably, but I’ve seen success and failure with both. I’ve seen a few poetry readers with more extensive motion moving around the stage or reading area. This has been rare, and I’ve seen it work (for me as audience member). If I’m not otherwise compelled, it might seem off-putting or artificial. Literary poetry readings do not seem the same as general public speaking or stage performance in expectations or needs in this regard.
Taking steps to earn the audience’s attention can pay off.
Pacing, setting audience expectations, and “set-list structure” does seem important. Don’t read too fast or too slow. Help the audience understand what you’re going to do (even mundane things like “I’m going to read six poems today” or “This is the last poem I’m going to read tonight”). Musicians most often work out the order of pieces they will present with some thought. It may help the performer (and therefore the audience) if you start with a “greatest pop hit” that you know how to consistently perform without making any extraordinary demands on either audience or reader. Place your most emotionally or intellectually demanding piece at the end, or next-to-last.*
Because we have to get over two obstacles when reading our own poetry, I’ve suggested to poets that they consider splitting their task into two parts. First, practice by reading other poets’ work aloud, even with no audience. Pick poets whose work is meaningful or influential to your own writing style, and figure out how to make them sound their best and most compelling in your voice.** Then, move on to your own poetry, and read it in the same voice and manner, as if it was as important and “certified” as your poetic models. The self-doubt, the “who am I to…?” factor can possibly be tricked with this path. However, what should you do if, when you get to the second task, you choke at how it sounds? It’s possible that your models, your influences, may need to be expanded. I myself started loving romantic era 19th century poetry for example, but later wanted to develop a more conversational style in my own writing. I could try reading Keats or Blake as if they were talking to me, or I could try reading aloud some Frank O’Hara instead.
How do you know how you sound when reading other poets or your own work. You need to record yourself. Your basic smartphone or laptop will do well enough. In the Parlando Project I make efforts to make my recorded voice sound better on recordings, but that’s not important in this effort. Will you feel self-conscious listening to your own voice? Almost certainly. Get over that it won’t sound right — it will sound more like what the audience hears. Do you feel your reading voice has a weird or unappealing timbre? That’s likely of less importance, so get over it.
It’s a good idea to practice your “set” before a public reading. Highly experienced readers can skip this step,*** but inexperienced readers should not.
In summary then, most readers of their own poetry are not great readers, even those who’ve widely published or won awards — so congratulations, it’s OK to be an imperfect reader, most of us are! Yet it’s still worthwhile becoming a better public reader.
A week ago I decided to read a love poem at a rare open mic session for a longstanding local reading series. I picked a slightly revised version of a poem I presented here a few years ago “The Phones in Our Hands (are so Magical).” The organizers’ instructions said that we should read only a single poem of our own and keep it under four minutes. I prepared for the reading by informally recording myself reading my poem about three times, to get a quick sense of if I had it down as to its presentation. On the night of the reading, I was able to present it at about 75% of what my third and best practice reading was. Where was the fall off? I read it just a bit too fast (nervousness) and I probably was less than optimum in handling some of the phrasing. I’ll give myself a middle grade in my overall presentation. I did try to set the expectations in introducing the poem, but in the end, the overall effect was less effective than it could have been for two reasons. I didn’t properly setup or convey the tonal shift in the poem, so the surprise when the poem shifts from the mysterious/playful to the experience of the separation of death from one’s partner confounded the audience. The difference between pleasurable surprise and confusion is subtle to describe, yet critical in effect. The other issue was “set-list” related. Most of the readers disregarded the one poem request and read 2-3, and as a Valentine’s Day themed reading, many of the poems were light-hearted and playful. My single poem was a “downer” and a “thinker” poem. I had considered doing two poems (still well within the four minutes) and would have led off with the Valentine’s poem I presented here last time, which is a more informal and joyous poem, even if it addresses the same issues of old love and eventual widowhood. In retrospect, that would have improved my “set” considerably. The bottom line I’ll convey from my most recent public reading: accepting imperfection is an important skill, ever more so if you are trying to do things well, and I enjoyed taking my swing at sharing my poem.
Today’s audio piece is the third take of my practice run-through of “The Phones in our Hands (are so Magical)” with an impromptu two-handed improv over a synth pad, one track a soft grand piano and the other a more plaintive high-in-its-range violin. Apropos to the above discussion of recording your own voice, the poem coincidently mentions how odd our recorded voice seems to most of us. You can hear it with the player below or this alternative highlighted link.
*If next-to-last, your last poem can then be another “greatest pop hit,” a poem of clarity that seeks to leave the audience energized and feeling they’ve comprehended what you’ve presented, rather than drained or perplexed.
**Does this sound like the Parlando Project, where 90% of the time we present performances of other poet’s words? I guess it does, but the main reason that I do the Project is that spending extended time with those words and integrating them with music tricks me into listening to them in a deeper way. It gets me past those issues I have being distracted while listening to another reader. In melding their poem with my breath and music, I’m forced to inhabit it.
***A great many (not all) musicians go through an intense practice regimen while developing their skills on their instrument, but a more relaxed and informal one later. Someone who’s gigging and playing regularly (using their bank of skills deposited from their own-room practice) is often able to maintain or even sharpen those skills without the need for as much solo practice. Similarly, if you are regularly reading, there’s much less need to practice your set.