This business of being a poet often entails standing up in front of a room of people and reading your poems. Two weeks ago, I read with Calliope, a group devoted to giving local poets a chance to bring their work before an audience. Alice Kociemba, the tireless and enthusiastic director of the reading series at the West Falmouth Library, asked me last year if I wanted to take part after my book came out. It was a wonderful opportunity to give back to my readers.
Since my book was published last month, different people have been giving me thoughts on their favorites from Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter. When I started preparing for my reading, I used their suggestions to help me choose the poems I would read for the Jan. 12 event. The experience made me think about what it takes to give a good reading.
First, be prepared. It helps to make selections that will vary the pace and mood of the reading as you go along. Since I was reading from my book, I decided to choose two or three poems from each section. With a twenty-minute time slot, I wasn’t able to read all my chosen poems, but I came close. I tried to pick poems that I thought would connect with my audience. For example, I always enjoy reading “Gretel’s Complaint,” one of my fairy tale poems. I also chose poems about my childhood to start the reading. The first poem I read, “Rolling Down,” was time specific: “By mid-January, I long for an open door,/clear empty light,/the rustle of my kitchen curtain/and the green breeze off the porch.” It felt like a good opening. I ended my reading with another crowd pleaser: “Old Bones.” I wanted poems that my readers would connect with on a personal level.
Next, practice, practice, practice. The day before my reading I read over the fifteen or so poems I had selected to read. My husband and son served as sounding boards and offered helpful advice. One good suggestion was for me to slow down. I know I tend to rush my words, so I paid attention to my diction and delivery. I also noted places where I tended to trip over words. I tried out alternate poems on the chance I wanted to throw in surprises or found one poem more meaningful than another.
On the morning of my reading, I picked out an outfit that I hoped was stylish, but comfortable. I didn’t want spiked heels or long dresses to trip over. I also asked a fellow poet for a ride since our one car wasn’t available for me to drive. It was nice to have a supportive friend by my side. We arrived early and that helped my case of nerves. The other two readers, Richard Hoffman and Kathleen Aguero, arrived a little later since they were driving from Cambridge. A married couple, they seemed very comfortable with the set-up.
I was asked to read first. Many poets don’t like to be the first readers, but I like getting my reading over with early so I can enjoy the rest of the event. I also think it helps to be flexible. Having given many readings in the past, it was a dream come true to have my book in front of me, rather than shuffling through papers. When it came my turn to read, I tried to clear my mind and focus on reading my poems.
So what can you do to make your reading a success? Be sure you are speaking into the mic and that everyone can hear you. Stand tall and make note of where your water bottle is. Reading is thirsty business. Most of all, enjoy the ride. The people shuffling in their chairs have given up their afternoon to hear you read, so keep them entertained and enlightened. Be natural and make eye contact with people in the audience. After all those solitary hours of writing, it’s nice to give back, to connect.