Giving a Poetry Reading

Shire Hall Library Image

I took part in a Poetry Event at Stafford Library on Tuesday evening so I thought I’d share my experience and thoughts about giving a poetry reading.

I was given one of three 20 minute slots and the evening included the Prize Giving of the 2012 Stafford Poetry Competition, run by Staffordshire Libraries and supported by Stafford & District Arts Council.

The other readers (pictured below) were Competition Judge, Michael Hulse, who read from his own, recent and unpublished work and from translations of work by Rilke and Ovid, and poet Grevel Lindop, who read from his new work, ‘Shugborough Eclogues’, commissioned by Stafford & District Arts Council and Staffordshire Libraries and Information Services.  In this Olympic year, the  commission celebrates the inspiration of Ancient Greece and the role of Shugborough Hall, near Stafford, in the 18th century Greek Revival.

The evening was organised by composer, local historian and Library District Manager, Andrew Baker.   A screened off area was set aside for the event.  Comfortable chairs were arranged in informal rows for the audience, with a line of chairs at the front for readers.  Glasses of water were thoughtfully provided for readers and light refreshments were available for everyone during a 15 minute interval.

Michael Hulse introduced the evening by delivering his interesting and insightful Judge’s Report (no longer available online) and reading extracts from some of the poems submitted.  Then it was over to me to read my winning poem (now published here) and other work.  In addition to briefly but sincerely thanking the competition organisers, I’d planned on saying a few words about what had inspired each poem.  I’d also thought carefully about the order of reading, placing poems of similar themes close to each other and trying to alternate longer pieces with shorter ones.

I said no more than a sentence or two about each poem, explaining what the trigger to writing them was, and what I’d been doing at that time in my life.  I also said something about what I’d been reading when I wrote the poem and about how long the drafting process had taken.  I assumed that many of the audience would be writers as well as readers of poetry so I felt that talking about the writing process would be of interest to them.

As part of my planning, I’d practised reading them aloud, to know how long each would take so that I wouldn’t go over my 20 minute slot.

Overall, I felt well-prepared, which helped me feel calm.  I’d stuck post-it notes into anthologies I was reading from so as to be able to quickly find the right place, and I’d written my notes about each poem and my running order in a notebook that I kept open on the chair next to me.

Michael and Grevel are extremely experienced writers, lecturers and workshop leaders,  so it was fascinating, not only to hear their work, but also to observe their approach to the public reading.  It was interesting to observe, for instance, that whereas I had chosen to project my voice, fearing I wouldn’t be heard by the audience (which was not particularly large), Michael chose to speak softly, although he was entirely audible.  He was thus able to create an intimate atmosphere and the reading was much less a ‘performance’ and felt more personal.  He included details such as how students had reacted to a piece and this engaged us, the audience, further with the writing.  It was an absolute pleasure to hear Michael read.

Grevel’s approach was also wonderful, I thought.  I especially loved the way he opened his reading by explaining that he’d taken a stone from the location that had inspired his work (Shugborough in this instance) and he brought and held the stone as he was reading.  He told me that he often brings an object to a reading.  This had the effect of making me feel immediately connected with the poem.  A really useful technique to try in the future.

Shugborough Hall from hot air balloon
Shugborough Hall from hot air balloon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d be fascinated to know how other people approach public readings so do leave some comments and suggestions.

2 thoughts on “Giving a Poetry Reading”

  1. I think I may have shared this with you before, Josey, but a few years ago as I was looking through a Bible reading I’d been asked to give in a busy seaside church, I broke my glasses. As I didn’t have a spare pair, just in case it should happen ‘on the day’, I learned the passage by heart. When I stood up to ‘read’ I actually just let the Bible hang at my side and recited verbatim. There were about 120 people including bored and boisterous children present, but by the end you could hear a pin drop. I think people really appreciated connecting with a story that wasn’t ‘read’ at all, but ‘told’.
    By the way, I’ve been writing every day since your Flash Fiction workshop, on a blog, and there’s a small allusion to one of your radio plays in No 3 ( Thanks for the inspiration!


    1. You make some interesting points here David. I thought about reading without a text, as I do know my own poems well. However I read something Martin Figura wrote about this very topic recently, about a reading turning into a performance and then being about the performance rather than the writing. Your ‘reading’ sounds like it was mesmerising, however. Thank you for commenting and delighted to hear about your writing. Will explore your blog! – J


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