Sorry folks, I've been out of commission for a few a poetry workshop thingie on Block Island with spotty phone and net access. But I did the "island thing" with gleeful abandon, including the requisite chilly early morning walk along the deserted shoreline accompanied by a manic Golden Retriever, And yes, I began a poem about the 'twilight of my life." How could I not?
For reasons I won't go into here, I also started thinking a lot about folks standing up to read their poems to groups of other folks. I wonder why it's so difficult sometimes. Can a poet reading an interminable boooorring singsongy ode to himself actually hear that interminable booooring singsongy ode to himself and recognize it for what it is? Can mass yawning among his listeners be interpreted as a clue? Can another poet, whimpering into her hands while the second row strains to hear, finally learn to lift her head and speak as if she actually believes in what she is saying?
I'm here to help.

What qualifies me to wax poetic on the art of waxing poetic? Well, I've been bellowing into microphones for more than 20 years now--and, as far as I know, no one has asked for their money back. Occasionally I am even given money.
So here's what I think.
--If you find yourself blathering, making excuses or over-introducing your poem, that is a sign that you don’t have much faith in the piece your about to read. This is fine if you want to admit that the poem is not finished and you want to consider the open mic as an opportunity to solicit feedback. It is NOT fine if you are presenting the poem as a finished, polished representation of you. If you have doubts about a poem, those doubts will ALWAYS affect your reading.
---Never pick a poem that is thick with metaphor and tangled meanings, or overly prosy. Remember: The audience will only hear the poem once. If it is cluttered with things that have to be deciphered, they’ll stop listening. They’ll resent having to work that hard.
---A poem is simply three or four minutes out of your life. If you’re not willing to speak clearly, acknowledge your audience and present that poem in the best possible light, ask yourself why you’re reading in public at all. Of course, we’re all seeking acceptance. But you’re not asking an audience to accept YOU—you’re asking them to listen and accept a series of meaningful lines you have written. Your time on stage will be over before you know it. And no one wants you to fail.
---Most readings are held in bars—but don’t drink heavily before getting up on stage. You’ll think you’re being brilliant and edgy. In reality, you will be slurring and listing a little to the left. The creative guzzler is no longer in vogue.
---Don’t rush through your poem. Remember that there is drama. There are breaths and nuances and pauses. There is tension and release, hills and valleys, just as there is in everyday speech. No one says you have to deliver a poem like machine-gun fire, then rush to your seat like you’ve done something bad.
---If you’re bad at memorization, don’t memorize the entire poem. Just memorize key snippets, so you’re able to look at your audience for extended periods of time. And while you’re looking at them, don’t think about getting back to the comfort of the page. Really LOOK at your audience. Look at them listening to you, and let their attention fuel your reading.
---If you have a piece of paper in front of your face, PUT IT DOWN. If you are shifting from foot to foot, STAND STILL. If you are waving your hands, pointing or otherwise punctuating your reading in an attempt to “perform,” harness that energy. Use your head and eyes and voice. Make the audience look at YOU, not at your choreography.
---Don’t be afraid of drama. Don’t shy away from dialogue, persona, and other unexpected entry points into your poem. Make the audience wake up. Convince them that you’re not like everyone else.
---When you are at a poetry reading, please pay attention to the other readers. You are in a room full of like minds, and you just might learn something.
---If you have chosen to share a piece that is intensely personal—one that may affect you emotionally—be prepared to surrender to that emotion. Never apologize for choking up or shedding tears. Almost everyone at a poetry reading is there to wring some hurt or anger out of their souls. They’ve been there.
---If you are intrigued by the idea of poetry in competition, watch it carefully before diving in. Even the kiddy pool is full of sharks.
---It’s actually easier to read in a room where you know absolutely no one. That way, your friends don’t feel obligated to comment on your work, and you don’t feel antsy waiting for that comment. However, if you are surrounded by friends, use them as a support system.
---Don’t be in a rush to read in public. Spend some time with your own work. Hone it and craft it and be your own first audience. Buy a few books and try out some innovative writing exercises. Challenge yourself. Be your own fan club, and once you decide to take the stage, your confidence will show.
And if you need a place to be alone with your art, I recommend Block Island in the off-season. Rent the dog if you have to.

Originally Published: March 25th, 2007

Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017), winner of an NAACP Image Award and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall...

  1. March 26, 2007

    Amen, Ms. Smith! I'm the husband of a poet and have been to scores of readings I would not otherwise have attended. Accomplished writers are frequently not inspiring readers. Your advice list is great--I'm particularly pleased with your item regarding poem choice.
    I offer two additional pet peeves as an experienced audience member:
    Pet Peeve #1. I can't stand when a reader asks her audience if she has time to read another poem. Does she really think a consensus will float upward from the audience? Will an audience foreman step forward with an enveloped answer? What would it mean for an audience to scream back, "NO! NO MORE, PLEASE!" And doesn't the silent response really mean, "no"? Usually I'm hunched down in my seat hoping the reader will be told to stop but some maverick narcissist best-friend-of-the-poet who thinks he represents the entire audience always pipes up with, yes, yes more, please. Make a decision about what you're reading and just do it, for god's sake. Practice reading your poems, time yourself, and if you've decided to read for 4 minutes more than your allotted time, be confident enough in your own work to just do it.
    Pet Peeve # 2. "Can you hear me?" I've been to readings where poets have interrupted their own poems with that question SEVERAL times. Once you've started reading, it's too late to start interviewing the audience. If you're concerned about volume -- speak louder. Again, the idea that a consensus will rise from the audience is painfully annoying to me. There's almost always someone who can't hear. Read loudly. Don't survey row-by-row looking for the perfect decibel level.
    I feel better just writing these things down --.

  2. March 26, 2007
     David Grefrath

    Dig Miss Smith,
    Thank you for the splendid words. I've also found it interesting the qualitative difference between poets who are fantastic on the page, and not so fab on the stage. It may be a heresee to say, but I love Wallace Stevens too much to have it pass for such; I think WS sometimes sounds like a ghost walking through his poems. And his poems are envigorating and lively, often playful.
    But you're definitely right on with letting the poem take yourself and the audience someplace new. Its great to be on that kind of all expenses paid trip, even if that leads to shocking or surprising destinations. listen. listen. listen.