This outline is adapted (with permission) from the chapter in Gary Mex Glazner’s book How To Make a Living as a Poet (Soft Skull, 2005) entitled “The Barbaric Yawp: Giving a Good Reading.” There is no better way to build an audience for poetry than to give a polished professional reading. Reading poetry aloud reconnects people to the original power of poetry and reconnects them to the pleasure of poetry: its sound. Walt Whitman called this the barbaric yawp. But how does one yawp barbarically?
Time Required: However long it takes you to psyche yourself up before you begin + the time of the reading itself
- Plan what you are going to do. Choose a set of poems from which you intend to read. If you’re reading from a manuscript, put the pages in your reading order. If you’re reading from a book, mark the pages (post-its are good for this purpose). You can always add a poem that comes to mind spontaneously during the reading, or eliminate one or more poems if you need to cut the time — but have a planned set before you go to the reading so you can avoid hemming and hawing and shuffling papers on stage.
- Warm up. Feeling some nervousness before giving a reading is natural. It shows you care about doing well. But too much nervousness can be detrimental. Warming up will help you control your nerves and give an effective, memorable reading. Doing a few simple stretching exercises will get the blood flowing — you want to be loose and supple during your reading. Some poets do push-ups, some rapidly repeat their poems, some talk to the walls backstage, some pray — whatever boosts your energy.
- Own the room. Arrive at your reading venue early. Burn incense or, even better, burn a sacrificial issue of Poetry. Call down the gods and goddesses of your choice. Get used to the room. Of course it will sound different when it is full of people — still, you can listen to the room as you walk through it. How alive or dead is the echo?
- Explore the performance space. Stand where you’ll be during the reading and look around. How are the sight lines to the stage? Is there a balcony to be aware of? Is there seating at the sides of the stage, where the audience will be left out if you only address those in front of you? Do you want to use the whole room by leaving the stage and microphone and walking out into the audience? If so, how do you access the stage and the audience area? Are there stairs?
- Check sound and lighting. Especially if you will be reading your work, check out the lighting situation. Sometimes the lights will wash out the printed page and you may have to be ready to turn at an angle to be able to read from the page — it helps to know this beforehand. Do a sound check to get used to the microphone if you’ll be using one. Try speaking into it from difference distances. There will be a “sweet spot” where your voice sounds best. Work with the sound person if possible.
- Chat up the audience. Saying hello to the audience is a good start. Be accessible; let them get to know you. Ask them questions. Find out what is going on locally — this may help you to decide what poems to read. You can use this pre-reading time to put yourself and the audience at ease. Getting acquainted like this may, however, not be possible in some larger venues. In that case it may be best to stay backstage, creating an aura of poetic mystery.
- Know your poems. It is a good idea to memorize at least a few of your poems, if not all the work you will be reading on a given night. There is a world of difference between reciting a poem by heart and having to actually read it. Memorizing the poem will allow you to concentrate on performance, have greater eye contact and a more powerful connection with the audience. Being able to watch the audience during your performance will give you a good idea of whether they are engaged.
- Time your set. Find out from the organizer beforehand how long your reading should be. Practice your set and make sure you have the intended poems timed out so that you can complete your presentation in the allotted time. Poets are famous time hogs. It is always better to finish when the audience still wants to hear more from you, rather than to leave them wondering when you are going to stop.
- Visualize yourself reading well. Imagine yourself performing your poems with your voice loud, clear and assured. When you visualize yourself performing well and reading your poems powerfully, you will increase your chance of reaching full barbaric yawp speed. Lie down. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply. You are feeling very relaxed. See yourself on stage. See yourself as one with the words. You are the poem, you shining star! (Careful now with your ohming, or you might just levitate.)
- Realize that the audience wants you to succeed. People want you to be a famous immortal poet. They want to have a good time and they want you to be interesting, stimulating, informative and entertaining. Perhaps they even want you to be sexy in an intellectual-tweed-jacket kind of way. One technique for conquering the common fear of public speaking is to envision the audience naked. The audience knows this and they, in fact, are often envisioning you naked. Let this be a source of comfort to you.
- Don’t apologize. Being a performer is never having to say you’re sorry. Don’t call attention to the fact that you are a nervous wreck. Don’t apologize for being a virgin reader. Let them guess that it is your first time, if it is. If they do guess that you have never done this before (at least not here, in this bar, like this...), ask them to be gentle with you. Don’t promise that you will come back and read again unless you mean it.
- Release the inner beast. Think of your nervous energy as Longfellow’s arrow, or as Shakespeare’s summer day. Build a nest in your heart and let your poems hatch their little eggs. Think of your nervousness as foreplay. Now tell me, how excited are you?
- Don’t eat a big meal or drink too much just before you give a reading. Eat something light and save your appetite for after the reading, when you can go out and celebrate your great performance.
- Have some water handy to sip when you’re on stage. Nerves can make your mouth dry and cottony when you start, and if the reading is long your throat may get parched.
What You Need
- Your poems
- Your voice