An Introvert’s Guide to Poetry Readings

Picture of Kara Candito

Author: Kara Candito

Back when I was an M.F.A. student, my own neurotic version of O’Hara’s title, “Why I Am Not a Painter” became an anguished mantra. Why Am I Not a Painter? I asked myself over and over during those years when it became terrifyingly apparent that reading one’s work was part of being a Poet. I never wanted to be in a band or star in a play. In fact, the idea of performing for any audience was, for me, something akin to swallowing and digesting (while reading my poems into a microphone) an industrial ironing board. If any of this sounds familiar to you, read on. If it doesn’t, read on (you might be entertained or relieved).

While my angst about doing readings has never really gone away, I’ve learned to live with it, and even to direct the physical energy of anxiety towards the act of reading.

The only useful philosophical advice I’ve ever received is it’s not about you; it’s about the poems. Each reading is an opportunity to present your work the way you hear it in your head. Seduce or repulse. Charm or terrify.  You’re a parasite. Feed off of your host (the poems).

Don’t waste time comparing yourself to other readers; or worse, imitating other readers. Whether you are dramatic/understated; casual/formal; animated/static; funny/serious; ironic/earnest, you are what you are as a reader, and there will always be room for revision and indecision; and self-validation and self-loathing.

Now that we’re on the subject of internal monologues, when it comes to the act of reading, try to exist in the moment. It sounds ridiculous, but each audience—

whether it consists of five or five hundred people—has a unique energy. Again, be a parasite. But do not over-feed. Some people will always look bored. They might really be astonished. Similarly, some people always look astonished. They might just be polite. Or, they might be the ones who starred in the plays you avoided in high school.

If you choose to read a poem you think this funny, know that when it comes to comedy, delivery is everything. Mostly, people laugh when you least expect it. This can be joyful or unnerving.

If you choose the introductory anecdote approach, be sure that the introduction doesn’t ruin or eclipse the actual poem.

Be courteous. If you are part of a lineup of four readers, limit your reading time. It’s almost always better to leave an audience wanting more, rather than squirming in their seats and discreetly checking their email.

Don’t try to be invisible. Make the most of your time. Read pieces you’re excited about, and read them the way they sound in your head. Keep in mind that taking risks in this area means there’s more potential for crisis and also reward.

Be gracious, but concise. Thank your host(s), the audience, the other readers, but no speeches.

Do not commit to doing a reading for the sole purpose of trying to sell something. Most of the time, you’ll be disappointed. And you’ll also miss out on the human factor.

Don’t medicate (any more than you do on an ordinary day), if you can help it.

If you drink, don’t drink too much before you read. Know the difference between loosening up and turning into a slurring, stumbling poetry lush.

Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself.

Try to enjoy yourself. Envision your favorite reader in the world and read into this person’s ear, even if she/he is in another hemisphere, or a figment or your imagination.

Remember that you spend most of your time alone before a computer/notebook/typewriter.

Consider why you write in the first place, why you read other poets, and why you attend other poets’ readings. Then, try to enjoy yourself even more. It will all be over in a minute.