Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Public readings: They're not about the reader

Why give readings?

Poets and other writers give readings mainly because they’re trying to sell books. Audience members attend readings to be moved and entertained—and if all goes well, they might buy a book.

But readings are a vehicle for community. We come together to have a common experience with words. The reader provides this experience, but a reader with books to hawk is not entirely the reason for the experience. Witness those regular reading series, where all of the same audience members show up on the second Tuesday or third Thursday to hear whomever comes out to read.

My first full-length collection is almost a year old, and it has given me many opportunities to share my work with audiences. I can say, candidly, that I’ve had mixed results. All of my readings have done the job, but some have been especially successful. It’s interesting to consider why that may be.

The fact is, I’m trying to become a better reader of my own work, and I think the key to success in this communication—as in most forms of communication—is to really understand and serve the audience.

What do audiences for live readings want from the experience? Several things.

They want to gel as a community. Let’s be honest: An audience at a live reading could just as well stay home and read a book, but it is important for writers to come together in person. What we actually do as writers, we do alone. And honestly, I don’t find it much fun. My poems can be painful to write and painful to read. Not every discovery a poem provides is a pleasant one. Community can provide a balm—a reminder that I have fellow sufferers, and that I’m not all alone.

They want to meet the person whose voice they’ve been hearing. When we love a book, we often have a voice in our head. It’s exciting to hear the actual voice of the (half-) creator of the work. The writing is one thing; the work is another. As readers, we have a hand in making a poem, essay, or story what it is, and the real human voice of our collaborator can give the work new life.

They want to be connected to the world of writing. I used to live in a very small rural farm town in northwestern Ohio. It was a good hour from the nearest reading, but when I heard of a literary event, I got in my Volkswagen and I puttered in that direction. I’d buy the writer’s book, or bring it, and I’d stand in line to get that autograph. Mind you, I’m not a collector, and despite all of my other character flaws, I honestly and truly don’t care about things. Those autographs weren’t about adding value to books; they were about having a chance to converse with a “real” writer, someone who was walking the path I wanted to be on. Every word of those small, private talks seemed vitally important to me then.

They want insight into work they love. When work challenges us, it’s sometimes good to go right to the source and ask a few key questions. Readings and the Q&As and signings that sometimes follow can help us to learn more about the work.

They’re fans. I’ve been there. When we’re fans, we want to meet our heroes and make memories in the process. In college, some friends and I traveled about four hours to see Robert Creeley at an event, the Ohio University Spring Literary Festival. It’s a great festival—amazing writers just milling about like humans—and my friends were wild about Creeley. In fact, one friend, George, had his collected poems, and we were fond of reading from it around campfires, and we’d memorize Creeley poems and draw them forth, on occasion, from memory. I remember George handing Creeley that book—spine broken in four places, all of the pages stained from fingers and smoke, most corners turned. George had carefully taped it back together, and the poet received it with the honor it was due. He had to have known in that moment how much he was loved. That’s why we went, in fact—to tell him.

A writer who is privileged enough to be invited to read should honor the audience, no matter their reason for attending. This is true if the reader is a major celebrity or, ahem, a one-book poet.

When I am the reader, I devote some thought to why might make the event memorable for those present. I’d like to offer an experience, and my poetry, which I generally feel very good about, is not, in itself, an experience. 

Poets are generally cognizant of the fact that one poem followed by another poem, and another and another, etc., can take too much out of an audience. It’s why we include a bunch of jibber-jabber between selections. Some of us are better at jibber-jabber than others. I think I’m kind of funny (we all think we’re kind of funny, just as we all think we have excellent taste), so I like to make my audiences laugh between poems—sometimes to continue the fun, and other times to break the tension or sadness. (I may be funny, but my poems frequently are not.)

It’s good to make people laugh. It’s good, too, to make something happen, artistically—and I haven’t found a clear way to do this. I have a poem with some fill-in-the-blank parts, and it’s fun to let the audience literally finish the work with me. Recently, too, I gave a reading in a gallery, and at the very beginning, I invited everyone present to stand up and look at some rather astonishing artwork with me.

At another reading, this one in Washington, D.C., I contemplated having the entire audience face the White House and scream obscenities with me. I reconsidered, though, and instead had everyone name a person deserving of compassion and grace. It was a thing we did, and it was unusual and strangely healing. Something happened that night, and it’s at least a little bit memorable.

Too often readings are a too-long, inexpressive reading of words on the page. Sometimes that’s preferable to the uncomfortable performative acts of certain writers. Sometimes the work is so good it can sustain it.

I’d love to offer some advice for successful readings. I suppose I’d say things like, “Go short instead of long,” or, “Practice reading clearly,” or “Pick work in which something interesting happens.” The best overarching advice is a combination of “Be engaging” and “Make sure your work doesn’t suck,” but no one really sets out to be boring and bad.

My thinking here is that readers should consider the very real audience who is welcoming them—what they need, why they’re there, what would make them happy. Maybe the most important thing to keep in mind is that when we read, it’s not about us—or if it is, it’s only slightly so.

At the end of the day, if we would be good ambassadors for challenging new writing—and we must—we have to think about ways to engage and connect.



  1. reading is a good habit that’s why writer and poets give preference to the reading because it enhance your vocabulary

  2. That is really good and well explained post, loved the way you wrote it. Going to share it with others, thanks for posting it and keep posting such posts