Dear Poetry Newbies: what’s the deal with poetry readings?
A previous version of this post appeared at One Night Stanzas in September 2008.
If you write poems, or if you’re interested in poetry, chances are you’re aware of the phenomenon of live poetry readings at some level. However, many young poets – even if they’ve been writing for ages – are fairly clueless about these events (because getting up and reading your own words to a room full of strangers can seem like total insanity!). If you’ve never performed at a poetry reading, and if you’re unsure about what they entail, take a look at this list and get yourself involved! The sooner you start reading your poetry to audiences, the better: fact. Why? Because live readings = four major advantages!
One: Live readings build better poems.
Reading your poetry to an audience can be extremely helpful when it comes to developing your personal poetic voice. Sometimes, what works on the page does not necessarily work when read aloud, so a reading can help you polish up a piece that you previously felt was finished… always a good thing! Reading aloud – and observing the reactions of your audience – also helps you to ‘inhabit’ a poem more fully; you’ll be better able to judge whether the poem’s tone or mood ‘works,’ for example, or whether your audience are convinced by a particular character you portray or a story you tell. Audience members will often seek you out afterwards to tell you what they loved about your stuff, too – make sure you listen to this feedback, because it can be extremely helpful! And even if you can’t use your audience to judge a poem’s ‘performance’ quality, you’ll often see and hear the best and worst bits of your poems much more clearly when you have to take them from page to performance. Reading aloud builds better poems and so I’d always encourage you to do it – audience or no audience!
Two: Readings help you conquer the world.
Reading your poetry in public – particularly the first time – can be very nerve-wracking. It doesn’t matter if you’re a daredevil extreme sports junkie or a budding thespian in your spare time; you’ll probably still find the idea of presenting your personal poetic creations to a potentially critical audience fairly terrifying. BUT! Don’t let the nerves stop you from going ahead with it, because once you’ve felt and conquered that fear, you can probably find the confidence to do anything! If you can step up onto a stage and read your stuff to an audience, then chances are a school presentation or daunting job interview should be a walk in the park! Reading your work builds your confidence massively, and gains you serious respect! The first time is always a scary prospect, but there are ways around this fear.
Three: You get your name in lights!
OK, so maybe not in lights, necessarily, but you get your name “out there.” In poetry, unfortunately, a big part of being successful is knowing and being known by the right people, so getting involved at readings can be the best way to make an impression. Even at small open mic gigs, there’s a chance you might run into a local magazine editor or poetry blogger, who might well give you a positive write-up or even ask you for a submission of work. Readings are fantastic for networking so make an effort to chat to people… and who knows? You could meet a future agent, editor, writing partner or publisher!
Four: Readings provide the three essential Cs.
Constructive criticism, contacts, and craic, of course! As I mentioned in point one, after you’ve got up and given your all, chances are you’ll get people coming to tell you what they thought. Don’t worry! You’ll rarely hear anything negative – even if you don’t feel like you did very well, you can guarantee that there’ll still be people who’ll want to tell you “that was great.” And why would they lie? This positive feedback is great for building your confidence, and improving not only your future performances but also the poems themselves. If you’re feeling extra brave, you can even ask people for details. Which poem did they like in particular? Which one was weakest? Was there anything they’d have done differently? Listen carefully to the answers you get, even if you don’t act on them.
The ‘contacts’ part doesn’t just apply to the editors and agents I mentioned in point three, either. Obviously, the people you’re most likely to meet at poetry readings are other poets! These are people who are into the same stuff as you, doing the same thing as you (and, you never know, possibly just as nervous as you, too!)… get talking to them, listen to their work, get their feedback. That’s where the ‘craic’ part comes in!
You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!