Tips Picked Up at a Poetry Reading


I fought Boston traffic (without even broaching the city limits) to reach Salem for a reason. I wanted to learn. Learn by listening to a poetry reading. And learn I did.

In Ocean Vuoung, Sandra Beasley, and Martha Collins, I got three distinct readers and styles for the price of one. This at the 8th annual Massachusetts Poetry Festival. Here’s what I picked up:


  • Sit in front if you can. As you know from the movies, human heads can be distracting as all get-out.
  • Don’t sit too far to either side unless you want a neck ache.
  • Put your program on the floor, lest it noisily slip off your lap mid-reading as mine did (oops).


  • Ask your introducing host to remind audience members about putting away their binkies (read: cellphones). As in off. In their pockets and out of sight. For the entire reading. (Remember: You’re the good cop. You just get up and read.)
  • Thank everybody, just like the Academy Awards. And don’t forget your fellow speakers (if you have any). You are not worthy (even if you are).
  • Beware oversensitive mics that pick up every dry-mouth lip lick and mouth sound.
  • Speak slowly. This is not the Indy 500. Poetry and checkered flags are a bad mix.
  • Dress relaxed. Feel relaxed. Look relaxed. (And if at all possible, be relaxed.)
  • It’s OK to draw out words a bit in the name of enunciation. Just don’t overdo it. That’s not drawing out in the name of enunciation. That’s drawing out in the name of the rack, a Medieval torture device.
  • Be yourself, even if no one knows who you are. Like dogs sensing fear, listeners sense naturalness (or lack thereof).
  • Keep the context for each poem brief and to the point. Make it interesting.
  • Good humor is always welcome. (Plus the sound of ice cream truck bells sends listeners back.)
  • Don’t be overly dramatic with your gestures, your mouth, your bulging eyes. If listeners start to focus more on your body than your body of work, you’re as cooked as the Cratchit family’s goose.
  • Be sure listeners know when your poem is finished. Without some signal (voice, head bow, looking up while slightly closing book), some endings can be awkward in an “Is That All There Is?” kind of way. Like Wiley Coyote, they just fall off a cliff.
  • Look at the audience now and again. And, hey. There are people to the right and to the left (just like the Do-Nothing Congress), too.


  • Buy a book. Get it signed. Say something nice to the poet. This is a small tribe we live in. We need each other’s support.