Eh? Or What Was That Last Line? (Part 2)

I want to address a concern about readings – that giving a poetry reading is different from a prose (fiction/nonfiction) reading. The answer is maybe. There is possibly less set up needed for a poetry reading than there is for a fiction or nonfiction reading. In my opinion, there is usually far too much set up, regardless of genre. A brief, and I mean brief, description of how the poem(s) came about is good enough. More can be given, if wanted, in the Q & A after the reading. I do need to know the basics about the characters and the relationships between them. If the section chosen for reading is clear, that is about all that is needed. In nonfiction, again, a short description of why or how the topic was of interest to the author is appropriate. In any case, speaking clearly, speaking up, slowing down, varying the voice, staying within time lines, practicing at home, and what follows here, I believe applies to any reading.

If you are reading with other writers, it is imperative that you stay within your time allotted. I’ve read in situations where my time was severely curtailed because someone before me took too much time. Please be fair. Keep the other readers in mind.

Similarly, keep your audience in mind. Don’t read more than they can stand. Numb bum is not a pretty sight in your audience. Not to mention not nice to experience. Leave your audience wanting more! You want them to buy the book after all.

I suggest having the material you are reading on 8 ½” x 11” pages. Increase the font to 14 or 16 point and print it off. It’s easier to read, maybe even readable should you forget your glasses. You can mark up the pages with underlining for emphasis or places you want to stop to breathe. If you have a book, show it at the beginning of the reading and again at the end. If it is possible, prop it up against the podium so people can see it.

If you have a podium, please don’t hide behind it. Look up! Look at your audience. Find a friendly face mid-audience and read to that person. Better yet, move your gaze across the audience. If you read looking down at the page all the time, the podium will dampen the sound just like rugs, books and bodies.

When there is a microphone use it! Too many times I’ve heard writers say, “I never use a mic.” Oh, how I wished they would have done so. If you use a mic, you don’t have to strain your voice to be heard in the back row. Speak clearly, speak slowly and it will work. And, it will allow you to use dramatic devices like stage whispers and dropping your voice with wonderful success. Your host knows the room better than you do. If there is a mic there, there is a reason for it.

If you are using a lapel mic, and you are a woman wearing long necklaces or a man who likes to wear fancy chains, be careful.  Jewelry can slip across your clothing and slap against the mic.

Speaking of what to wear, if you like to wear hats, especially broad-brimmed ones, be careful with them. The audience likes to see your face. The hard of hearing like to be able to see your face and lips without shadows. The brim can block your voice from reaching the audience. Wear the hat if you wish, but place it on your head so that your face can still be seen. Look up from the page.

You wouldn’t think that foot wear would be something to worry about, but it can be. Women with high heels or high heeled boots can make an awful sound if you are one who shifts your weight on your heels. It can be really distracting. Similarly, for guys who wear cowboy boots or shoes with hard heels. I’m not saying don’t wear them. I’m saying be aware of what you are doing with them.

Oh, and guys, be really careful about playing with the coins in your pocket while you are reading. I was giving a reading once and was a bit more nervous than usual. I wanted to look calm, cool and collected. I had my hand in my pocket and was letting the coins run through my fingers as I read. I didn’t notice it, but I was told afterward that everybody could hear the clink of the coins in my pocket. The best thing is to keep your hands out of your pockets altogether.

I recommend that you don’t drink alcohol before you read. I know others will tell you, it will “settle the nerves”. It might. But, a little “nerves” is a good thing. I know that if I am not a little nervous, my performance lacks the energy needed. So, channel the nerves into helping rather than hindering the reading. Drinking before hand, I believe, makes it more difficult to keep track of your place in the reading, keep track of time, makes you more likely to go over time, etc. etc. Save the drinks for celebrating after the reading. A glass of water will do just fine both before and during the reading.

Similarly, I don’t recommend drinking coffee or tea or milk products. These things will encourage the production of phlegm in your throat. Gross! Yes, the only “stuff” you need in your throat is your words.

Okay, you’ve done it all right. You’ve got five minutes left. And, horror of horrors you lose your place or you forget that next line. Now what? Stop. I mean it. STOP. Don’t apologize. Stand still. Look at the page in front of you and find your place or find the line. Begin speaking at that place. I promise, if you do this, nobody in the audience will notice. The time (seconds) will feel like hours to you. It isn’t. Practice at home. It works.

I also promise, if you start to stumble around, apologize, start jumping around, run your hand through your hair, cry or run screaming off stage, the audience will notice and remember that and not your work.

You’ve gotten through your reading and people are all talking at once. Book sales are looking good. Your writing hand is cramping from signing autographs. Well done! Now you can relax and have that glass of wine. Now you can say to yourself, “I did that. And, I did it well!” Was it fun? I sure hope so. It is easier  when it’s fun. But, this you can be sure of, it was a good time for your audience. And, that’s what counts.

There are other things I can suggest. They are contained in the workshop that I teach. Giving a reading in public really can be enjoyable for both you and your audience


Bob Stallworthy is a transplanted Maritimer who has lived in Calgary for 25 years. He has written four full-length books of poetry, including Things That Matter Now and an ongoing e-book called In Silhouette containing the profiles of Alberta authors. He has also written book reviews for the Calgary Herald as well as a regular column for WestWord (the Writers Guild of Alberta magazine), and has written and published poetry in literary magazines across Canada. His book Optics was shortlisted for the 2004 W.O. Mitchell City of Calgary Book Prize. Stallworthy, who was awarded the Calgary Freedom of Expression Award in 2002, is a lifetime member of the Writers Guild of Alberta and a member of the Young Alberta Book Society.

[ Part 1, in case you missed it, is at]