How to Choose Poems to Read at a Poetry Reading

You’ve been invited to read your poems: fantastic.  Now ensure you get invited back… especially if you’re being paid to read. 

If you’re organising your own reading, the following tips are still worth bearing in mind.

Where is your poetry reading and who is your audience?

An open-microphone event in a bar will have a different audience to a poetry group meeting in a library.  An audience at a magazine launch will expect to hear the poems in the magazine.  A literature or local festival may have a theme to it.  Will your audience consist of casual readers or poetry readers, people expecting a performance or people more comfortable with a straightforward reading?

Find out as much about your audience as possible.  Also find out what the format of the reading is – just a reading of the poems you select or a reading with a question and answer session?  Will the audience be able to request you read a certain poem?

How long will your poetry reading be?

If it’s over half an hour allow ten minutes for introductions.  If it’s less than half an hour allow five minutes for introductions.  Of the time left after those five/ten minutes have been taken off, allow a minute for each poem or part of sequence that is 40 lines or less as a rough guide to how many poems you will be reading.

 As you select poems consider:-

  • Is there a theme emerging and it is a theme appropriate to your audience – a younger audience in a bar is not likely to engage with family themed poems, a library-based group may not engage with your space opera sequence.  If you have been asked to read poems based around a theme, do accommodate the theme otherwise you may not be asked back.
  • Lighten the load: put a humorous or light poem in amongst a run of more serious ones or vice versa.
  • Think about introductions and spread the poems that require longer introductions amongst poems with shorter introductions. 
  • As a general rule ensure your introduction is shorter than your poem.  Focus your introduction on giving the audience a handle on the poem rather than the poem’s form (unless the audience need to know the poem’s a sonnet so they get the joke).  If your audience is familiar with your poems, they won’t need much in the way of an introduction.
  • Don’t say the poem’s title until you’re ready to read the actual poem.  If you say the title and then introduce the poem before reading it, your audience may think the introduction is part of the poem.
  • Tempting though it is, don’t just read already published poems.  Include one or two that you feel are ready for an audience but are unpublished – your audience will appreciate an ‘exclusive’.
  • Plan to end on a crowd-pleaser – a poem that goes down well at readings or a poem you’re particularly known for.  It may be tedious repeating a poem that audiences like but you’ve become bored of, but if you leave an appreciative audience wanting more, you’ll be invited back.
  • Reading a sequence can be risky if the audience don’t like it.  Try mixing a sequence with other poems or only use a sequence if you’re sure you’ve got the right audience for it.  An audience made mainly of other poets is more likely to tolerate listening to a sequence they don’t like but can appreciate.  A casual audience will be less tolerant.
  • If reading at an open microphone event or an event where you are one of a number of poets reading, remember that your audience will consist of others waiting their turn or rehearing their own reading so pick a variety of styles and poems that build towards a punch line rather than quieter poems that will fade quickly.  The more distractions available to your audience, the more compelling your poems and reading have to be.
  • If there will be a question and answer session, include a couple of poems that may suggest questions later – such as a poem on a current news topic or a poem about a local person or place or a poem that asks questions.  You can kick off the question and answer session by referring back to it.

Rehearse your Poetry Reading

  • First read through the poems and introductions to check your timing – aim to keep within the time rather than be spot on.  Do not run over: not only will you create headaches for the organisers who now have to work out how to keep everything running to time, you won’t be invited back.  Live literature event organisers do talk to each other and poets who gain reputations for being awkward will find that reading opportunities dry up.
  • Get a feel for volume – not all venues provide microphones and you need to be heard by the back row.  One way of doing this is to put a tape recorder the distance of room away and tape yourself reading, checking that tape’s picked up your voice and how loud it is.  Then move further and further away from the tape until you’re two rooms away or the length of a small hall.  Get used to reading at that volume.
  • Pace yourself – your voice needs to last for the whole reading.
  • How comfortable are you with how you’re holding the poems as you read?  Some poets like to hold books or magazines and use numbered book marks.  Other poets prefer holding printed sheets, sometimes adding bullet points or keywords to prompt introductions.  Whichever feels more comfortable, check the poems are printed on matt paper so you’re not trying to squint through reflections from strip lighting as you read.  Bear in mind too that some venues will not offer a lectern or table for you to place books or paper on whilst reading so practice managing without.
  • If you want to learn your poems off by heart, it’s still advisable to have a printed version handy.  Even experienced actors use a prompter and it’s reassuring for the audience too.
  • If you’re reading your poems from your book or sheet, remember to look at the audience when introducing the poems.  The book or sheet can become a barrier so use eye contact to engage the audience between readings.
  • Always signal your last poem.  It helps the audience and any master of ceremonies to know you’re coming to an end.
  • Finish by saying “thank you”.  A reading is about your interaction with an audience, not you.

At the Poetry Reading Venue

You’re prepared, rehearsed, got your poems and reached the venue early.  If poetry reading organisers are truly organised you will have been given a name of the person who is responsible for meeting you and they will show you around and ensure you have what you need. 

If the poetry reading organisers are less organised, assess the actual room/bar/venue you’re reading in:-

  • Are you expected to walk “on stage” from the audience or sit in a chair to the side of the stage until you read?  If the former, select a chair next to the aisle.
  • Check your path to the stage is free of obstructions – tripping up is not a good way to start a reading.
  • Is there a microphone?  If so, has it been switched on and can you do a brief rehearsal?
  • Is there a hearing loop? If so use it.
  • If you would like a table to put books/poems on, check there is one or improvise with a chair if not.
  • Are the audience seated in rows or a horse-shoe shape around the stage?  If in rows, you simply stand at the front.  If a horse-shoe shape, draw an imaginary line between the two points at the ends of the crescent and stand in the middle of it.  If you stand forward of the imaginary line, some of the audience will be behind you and won’t hear you.  If you stand too far back, the audience in the curved section will struggle to hear you.
  • Are there any traps that could interfere with the audience’s ability to hear you?  Heavily stocked bookshelves can sometimes create odd echoes.  Noisy air conditioning or heating units can provide distractions.  Low open windows can let in noise.  You may have to compensate for these.
  • If you can, stand up to read.  You’ll find it easier to project your voice and the audience will be able to see you.  Avoid sitting behind a table – it might be easier for you but it’ll be harder to project your voice and the table creates a barrier between you and the audience making it harder to engage them.
  • If you are one of several poets reading and a poet reading before you has overrun, don’t assume that you will be asked to shorten your reading.  The event organisers should have prevented the poet overrunning and/or should cut back on intervals and breaks to get things back on time and in any case good planning would have included some slack time to allow some flexibility.  You have prepared and rehearsed to the time you have been allocated: it is simply not fair for the organisers to ask you to make sudden last minute changes to accommodate someone else’s overrun and take away a fair distribution of time for every poet reading.  You have been professional and it is reasonable to expect the organisers to be equally professional.

Quick Tips on choosing Poems for a Poetry Reading

  • Know the time you have been allocated to read and ensure you keep within it.
  • Select poems appropriate to your audience.
  • Keep introductions brief and vary poems that need a long introduction with poems that have a shorter introduction.
  • Rehearse.
  • Ensure you can hold your poems without needing a table to put them on and that the poems are on matt paper so you won’t be squinting through light reflections.
  • Use variety: vary the pace and tone of poems.
  • If you can, stand up to read and remove any distractions or barriers between you and the audience or compensate if it’s not possible to remove them.
  • Rehearse
  • Behave professionally and you’ll be invited to further poetry readings.
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3 Responses to “How to Choose Poems to Read at a Poetry Reading”

  1. bldherenow Says:

    Hello, I would like to invite you to join; The Poetic Voice Community. It is a writer’s site where you can enter contests – add poetry and get feedback. The latest entries are listed on the blog posts. Click on link, and check us out! Then join, and post.

    Website: http: //poeticvoice.ning.com/

  2. Poetry Readings: respect your audience | Emma Lee's Blog Says:

    […] Select your poems in advance and check they fit the permitted slot, including short introductions to each poem (as general rule make sure your introduction is shorter than the poem). There are more tips here on how to choose poems for a reading; […]


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