A Poet’s Pointers On Public Reading

By Jorge Antonio Vallejos

In my last post, Preparing For A Poetry Reading, I wrote about my process of preparing for a public reading.  That day I was reading at a conference called From Poverty to Power put on my the Colour of Poverty Campaign.

My reading went well.  (The video goes up on Friday, the post after this!)

I used the techniques I wrote about on Monday after writing them down for you.

Now to what happens(ed) before and during the actual reading.  Here are my humble tips:

Introduce Yourself 

Most times the group or organization you are reading for will have asked you for a bio in advance and will have read it to the audience before you get on stage.  Sometimes things get messed up and they will have lost your bio or have forgotten to print it up for the event.  In any case, introduce yourself.  If your bio has already been read make it short.  If not, give your whole bio.  Regardless, it’s nice for the crowd to hear who you are from you, the person they are there to see.

Thank the Organizers and the Audience

It’s an honour to be asked to read somewhere.  Not all poets get such an opportunity.  Let the organization know that you are thankful.  And show the crowd appreciation for being present and for giving you their time.

Thank Your Co Presenters

At the Colour of Poverty conference I shared the stage with Indigenous Elder Ed Sackaney, Poet Laureate of Toronto George Elliott Clarke, and poet Amani.  I thanked Elder Sackaney for his opening of the event and George Elliott Clarke (a poet of colour) for breaking down doors for a young poet of colour like me in this white dominated writing world.  I also thanked George Elliott Clarke because his performance was amazing and a hard act to follow; I wanted to acknowledge why he is Toronto’s Poet Laureate.

If Necessary, Give A Trigger Warning

If you write the types of poems that I write you need to give a trigger warning.  A lot of my poems deal with colonialism and its current effects: racism, violence, incarceration…

Words are powerful, they can build people up and tear people down.  The last thing I want to do at a reading is trigger someone who is a survivor of the many different forms of violence and abuses in our society.

Before I read I let the audience know what I will be reading, why, and who it is about.  Sometimes I start out with, “I have to give you a trigger warning…”  That’s how I started out my reading in March 2013, Spreading The Roots and Reach of the Living Tree., at the SPINLAW Conference at Osgoode Law School.

After reading my poem White Van at an event 4 years ago two different women thanked me for giving a trigger warning.  I thanked them for their words and for listening.

Acknowledge Your Privilege and Position

Using again the example of the poem  White Vana poem about violence against female sex workers, I let the audience know that I was writing about a difficult topic that was not my lived experience.  Not being a woman, a sex worker, or a survivor of sexual violence, I wanted to acknowledge this out of respect for sex workers and survivors of sexual violence.  It’s about respect.  Respecting peoples and their lived experiences.

Project Your Voice

Not all venues have a great sound system.  Sometimes you don’t have a mic.  And you are on stage to be heard.  So, project your voice.  Put some stomach into your reading.  Use your diaphragm to get your voice out.  Read about using your diaphragm, google it, youtube it!  Take some classes if possible.  Do it!

Make Eye Contact     

Have you ever been to a lecture, talk, or reading where the presenter is reading off the page for the whole time?  You get bored and zone out!  University professors who do this get the worst ratings!  You have to connect with your audience.  The best way to do this is to make eye contact.

The traditional thought on public speaking is to focus on one point at the back of the room or one person in the crowd.

Fuck that!

Periodically move your heard around and look at different people.  Look into someones eyes as you speak.  Show the crowd that you are there for them.  Connect.  Eye to eye. Person to person.

Watch my latest reading where I say the same line, We live in a culture of rape, throughout the reading.  Every time I say the line I look at someone.  After the reading a 60 year old professor came up to me to thank me for the work I do and said, “I’ve been to many conferences over the years and this is the first time I have cried.”  My reading brought out emotion but it was not only my words it was my connection with the crowd that brought that out.

I hope my humble tips are of use to you!

Try them, keep what you like and throw out what you don’t like.

If you have your own system of techniques please share them.

Peace, prayers, poetry!


About Black Coffee Poet

Black Coffee Poet is a mixed race poet, essayist, and journalist who focuses on Social Justice, Indigenous Rights, STOPPING Violence Against Women, Film, and Literature.
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  1. Pingback: BCP READS @ POVERTY TO POWER 2013 | Black Coffee Poet

  2. pdlyons says:

    thank you for this real and good advice. all the best wishes for your continued creativity.

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