Information and Advice
Poetry Reading – How To Do It
Reading verse in public needs a little practice. Start by listening to how others manage it. Attend local events, listen to recording of the greats. Tapes of Dylan Thomas, the archetypal declaimer who affected a whole generation, are widely available. You might also like to listen to Ted Hughes, Wendy Cope, Simon Armitage, and Roger McGough. Not everyone approaches readings the same way. The performers - Joolz, Ifor Thomas, Ifor ap Glyn, John Cooper Clarke, John Hegley - sound full of confidence. The old guard - Dannie Abse, Seamus Heaney, Gillian Clarke, Tony Curtis - sound as cool as they ever did. Check Betty Mulcahy’s How To Speak A Poem (Autolycus Press) for advice on the formal approach to declaiming. Ted Hughes’s anthology By Heart: 101 Poems To Remember (Faber) offers tips on committing verse to heart (should you want to use this approach) along with a fine selection of examples to practice on.
Actually getting invited to give a reading is another matter. You need a reputation before the big ones will ask you. But local events open to new writers are common enough. Check with your local local library. Look at the on-line listings events on Literature Wales' web site. Attend and listen to how things go and then ask if you can perform.
Once on the platform and facing your audience there a few things to remember which will make things go well:
1. Prepare your selection in advance. Do not leave things to chance and attempt to decide what to read next on the spot.
2. Have some idea before you get up of the things you’ll say to introduce each piece and make these sharp. Audiences are often as interested in what you say between poems as they are in the verses themselves.
3. Know how long you’ll take. Do not ramble endlessly. Always leave them wanting more.
4. If you’ve a book for sale then tell them and after you’ve told them then tell them again.
5. Sink your shoulders, move your head back onto the top of your spine and read to a spot at the back of the room. The audience will all imagine you are reading just to them.
6. Do not wear dark glasses, eye contact is vital.
7. Try not to fumble with your papers (or drop them). Use a table or a lectern if you think your hands will shake.
8. Take a deep breath and blow.
The poetry reading circuit is full of small audiences, amateur organisers, botched promotions and conflicting events. Once on it be prepared for most things imaginable to go wrong. If you are asked to read and offered a fee always get it in writing. You want to know where, when, with whom, for how long and how much. Check what expenses you’ll be paid and where you’ll be staying. Find out in advance, leave as little as possible to chance.
An earlier version of this advice appeared in Peter Finch’s How To Publish Your Poetry (Allison & Busby).