Poetry essay: How to improve the experience of reading poetry aloud in public

If you write poetry, the time may come when you want to, or as a requirement for something like a class, have to, read poetry aloud in public.  For example, maybe you are going to be part of a poetry reading at a coffee house.

This can be a trying experience.  Many people have trouble speaking in public normally, and reading poetry, something that is subject to interpretation, can be even harder.  Will the audience understand it?  Will they understand it in the same way intended?  Will it be received well?

There are some things you can do to make this a better experience.

First, if you know whom you audience will be and can choose whatever poem or poems you want to read, then choose poems that will fit and appeal to your audience.  Pick something that fits with how they understand things, is something they will understand, will match their perception of poetry, and they will like.  If you like serious free verse poetry, but your audience likes funny limericks, present funny limericks.

Second, choose a poem that isn’t too obscure.  You will have a better experience if your poem is understandable.

Third, practice.  Practice a lot.  Don’t just practice reading the poem, but also practice how you will read it.  Where will you pause?  What words will you emphasize?  How will you move?

Fourth, if you are writing the poem for the reading (as opposed to reading one that has already been written), then write what you say instead of later saying what you wrote.  In other words, as you compose the poem, say it aloud first.  Compose it by speaking it.  Write what you speak.  Make sure the words sound nice when spoken.  Make sure there is flow.  If you do things the other way around, you may end up with something that might sound nice when written, but sounds long or doesn’t flow when read aloud. (As an example of this, this essay might sound nice read on the page, but would be too cumbersome as it is written to be presented aloud.  It is written in complete sentences without normal speech transitions.  This might make it sound like text instead of speech if presented.)

Fifth, test your reading of your poem in front of one or more people you know.  This will give you a taste of the experience and you can gauge how the poem comes across.  If you don’t have anyone you can test your poem for, then record it on a camera.  Watch it when you are done and see how it sounds.  This can also be a good exercise, because the act of reading your poem to something can make you feel like you are being heard.  It can give you a sense of the experience.

Sixth, pick a subject matter for your poem you are knowledgeable about and are comfortable with.  Don’t present something you don’t have knowledge of.  You may be asked questions later and you want to know you can answer them.

Seventh, similarly, read a poem you can explain if asked about it.  Some listeners may want to know what a certain line meant for example.  You should be able to tell them.

Eighth, some people when they present something publicly, either speak slower or faster than normal, and either quieter or louder than normal.  If this is you, and you can identify what you do, then practice doing the opposite before you present.  For example, if you identify that you read too quickly and quietly, then practice reading slowly and loudly.  When you present, the experience may cause you to speed up and be more quiet, but since you are trying to compensate for this, you speech may come across normally.

Ninth, if you can go to the place you are going to read beforehand, go.  See what it is like.  See what the space is like.  Look at it from the place where you will be speaking.  Try and make the place and the view of it become familiar.  This can make presenting there easier.

Tenth, try and found out what the expectations are of the person putting on the event.  How long do they expect poems to be?  What content is acceptable?  What kinds of poetry are they expecting?  What’s normal for the event?  If you can read or listen to poems that have met expectations at previous events, that would help as you decide what to read for the event you will be in.