Before I started giving my own poetry readings, I didn’t think much about the selection process for what to read. I would sometimes go to Open Mic Night at the Gypsy, but I didn’t really think about what I was reading. I had a 10 minute timeslot, which was usually enough time for 2-3 poems, so I just read my most recent poems.
A few months ago, I had my first full-length poetry reading. I had about 25 poems I felt were worthy of public scrutiny, but I thought reading them all would take too much time. I didn’t want the last few poems turning into a chore for me or my audience. “Thanks for staying 30 minutes later than your excitement. Have a swell night!” I wondered if I should focus on older or newer poems, poems surrounding a unifying theme, poems that had a certain length. What I came up with was a list of 15 poems of varying lengths and age. They were mostly observational poems because I’d titled the event “Portraits.” I think I did pretty well, but I remember how the non-observational poem dead-panned.
Tonight I’m reading at an event called Hope & Healing, so obviously I need to attend to those themes. My set is scheduled for 20 minutes, so that limits how many poems I can read. Of my total poetry collection, I have about 10 poems that are appropriate for the topic. I’ve settled on 5. I carefully ordered them to flow in a certain way. But I’ll take the others with me. You never know when you’ll get extra time or will talk through your prepared work too quickly. I don’t expect a rock concert like encore demand, but I’ll have “one more song” ready to go.
Based on my experience, here are few pointers for selecting poems for a reading:
1. Select the right number for the allotted reading time. Know how long it takes you to read your work. I sometimes read faster when I’m nervous, so I must allow for that.
2. Take extra poems. Sometimes your allotted time changes. Sometimes you feel the audience might react well to something not on your agenda.
3. A unifying theme isn’t necessary, but if there is a unifying them, stick to it.
4. Break up the long poems with short ones. It can be exhausting to both poet and audience to read epic after epic after epic.
5. If you plan to talk between poems, know what you want to say. You don’t need a script, but it may help to take some notes. One poem I’m reading tonight is “Missing Lucy.” I plan to talk about how writing that grief poem helped me heal after my grandma died.
6. Don’t read the same poems every time. If you’re on a multi-city tour, maybe the same reading list can be used ad nauseum, but if you read at x cafe on Saturday and y cafe in the same town the following Friday, mix it up. Audience members who attend both readings will expect fresh material.
7. Don’t put too much pressure on reading your “best” work. Obviously, you do want to share the poems you feel are good, but it can be fun to throw in a rough draft or a humorous poem in with a serious batch.
Any other thoughts on preparing for poetry readings?