I still remember the first time I read my own work in front of a group of people. I was 21. It was at an open-mic at the University of Alabama called “Common Ground.” The poem I was reading was about domestic violence. Subject matter aside, to say that I was nervous would be an understatement. While I read, I was shaking the entire time. Being in front of a crowd has always been difficult for me from the time I was a kid. I would say, however, that my days of standing in front of my church congregation and reciting bible verses, singing and “acting” in various plays prepared me for that moment.
I’d always been put in front of a crowd. Whether I wanted to or not, I was a narrator, Jairus’ 12 year old daughter, a member of the group “Children of Praise,” and a member of the youth choir and adult choir. I’d be there, but I’d be standing on the back row, partially hidden behind my friends, or lying on the floor during a performance, playing a dead girl (who of course had no speaking lines.)
I never became completely comfortable with being on display. The great thing about being a poet, though, is that your work is on display with you, and you’re not alone up there, winging it. With time and experience, I’ve become better at it. Still though, if it’s been a while since I’ve been on stage in front of people, I am completely nerves. I’m always curious to see how I’ll respond to various audiences because sometimes I feel like I won’t know until I arrive.
Reading in James Island, S.C. at McLeod Plantation
My next reading is February 7th at the University of North Alabama. I’ll be reading poems from Mend. Here are some things I do to prepare for a reading.
1) Go to another reading. (Under the best of circumstances, I try to make it to another reading that is near the date of my own.) This allows me to think about ways the writer is successful, and if there is an open mic, I can “practice” by reading in front that crowd. It makes me feel more ready when it’s time for my own reading.
2) Get to know the place where you’ll be reading. I look at pictures of the space I’ll be reading in or arrive early so I can see it and visualize myself reading. I try to make sure I am comfortable with walking up to the stage area, the position of the podium or mic, and how far away the audience will be in relation to myself.
3) Select what you will read based on your audience. If I’m reading to a younger crowd, an older crowd, or academic crowd, I choose what I will read accordingly.
4) Choose the pieces you will read in advance. I usually order them according to tone. (Some advice I’ve heard is to go back and forth with emotionally lighter and heavier pieces.) You also have to decide how you want to begin and end. What ideas do you want your audience to be left with?
5) Notate the work. As I read the work aloud, I make notes to remind myself to slow down, breathe, and sometimes even to smile. I highlight lines and words I want to emphasize. My resting face is blank—especially when I’m nervous. I even write down who I want to thank. Another important part of notating is to make a few notes above pieces you want to explain. I try to keep this short—two sentences at the most. I don’t believe you should try to explain every single piece before reading. Also, in my opinion, the explanation should never be longer than the poem.
6) Time how long it will take to read your work. Be considerate of your audience and if you have them, co-readers.
***After the reading, if you feel it was successful, save the pieces in the order you read them, so you will have a reading packet ready to go if needed.
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