Organise a poetry reading

If you love contemporary poetry, it may occur to you to share this passion with others by organising a poetry reading in your town. Or it may be that you're a literature or arts worker with a remit to stage 'live literature'.

Whatever the context, organising a reading takes time, planning and flair. Readings are vital to poets: a chance to showcase work, meet readers, communicate with fellow poetry-lovers, try out new material, gather feedback and sell books. It is hardly possible to make your way in the world as a poet without giving readings, and most poets enjoy them... when they're well-organised.

As veterans of many poetry readings, Archive poets have been asked to contribute their thoughts on what makes a good reading.

The poets

You may have particular poets in mind right from the start, in which case you can contact them either by writing to them c/o their publishers or through the Poetry Society (staff there cannot hand out contact details, but if you ask nicely they will forward a letter or email for you). Start this process well in advance, as Fleur Adcock advises: "give the poet or poets plenty of notice, at least six months, or, in the case of someone in great demand, a year."

If you have an open mind on which poets to invite, there is no better place than the Archive to start exploring the world of contemporary poetry. Here you can not only see the poet's work but hear them reading it; this will help you enormously in judging whether they are likely to go down well with the audience you have in mind and - if you are planning to present two or three poets on the same bill - how they will complement one another.

Provide the poet with as much information as possible in your letter of invitation. As Roy Fisher suggests, "give an idea of the context and purpose of the event e.g. festival, series, mixed bill". Make sure practical details are understood between you: Selima Hill recommends that you establish "if and when there will be a meal (before or after or not at all); when and how the reader will be paid (on the day or later); and who, if anyone, will provide copies of books".

The audience

Who will come and listen? This essential question needs to be considered right at the outset. Do not make the mistake of assuming that your own passionate interest in poetry is universal; in fact, you will almost certainly have a considerable amount of work to do to persuade others that this is a great way to spend an evening.

There are of course many ways of advertising an event, from posters in shop windows to announcements on websites, but all this will be quite a task unless you have already done some of the groundwork: making friends with your local writers' and readers' groups, going along to other readings and literature festivals in the region, building a mailing list of likely candidates... in short, networking. Fred d'Aguiar suggests "tying in the reading with a writing workshop beforehand with a local writing group" and aiming to make the reading "part of a series rather than a one-off".

Poets are well used to the 'three men and a dog' scenario, but it is dispiriting to have planned, prepared, travelled and then arrived to find rows of empty seats and the organiser engulfed in nervous misery. Before you get to the point of inviting the poet, you must be confident that you can get an audience. Alan Brownjohn, organiser of many readings himself, says: "No audience should be less than 20 and if there is a danger of that, the organisers should press-gang all their friends and relations out of courtesy to the poet (lots of phoning and word-of-mouth work is more productive than posters in ten coffee bars.)"

You might need to be imaginative about the way you promote your event. Use a bit of lateral thinking. This insight from Hugo Williams might get you started: "Poetry readings are cruising zones. This has to be got across. My mind is already contemplating the idea of a singles night, but I wouldn't go that far."

The venue

Les Murray says that a poetry reading "must be in an enclosed space devoted, for the length of the reading, to no other purpose". This may sound like a rather obvious requirement, but it's by no means always the case. Readings take place in all sorts of places: cafés, pubs, churches, theatres, schools, hospitals, shopping centres... Les draws the line at shopping centres: "No readings should ever be put on in malls, parks or other places where not all those present are there for them or constrained to keep still... volunteers only for the Muses." Elizabeth Bartlett is in favour of readings in pubs: "Drink releases the poet and the listeners," she explains, then adds "but don't get too drunk". Hugo Williams is not so sure: "Pubs are OK but can be rowdy and not everyone will know who you are or care." He offers this radical suggestion: "Hold it in your own house, then it'll look crowded."

A reading can probably be made to work in most spaces, with some thought and forward planning. It is your job to eliminate or minimise distracting noise such as banging doors, fans, coffee machines, loud music from the bar downstairs or - a familiar problem in pub readings - bar staff so enthusiastic about washing the glasses they can't wait till half-time. You wouldn't want to go and see a film in a room where lights flicker on and off and other images keep flashing randomly on the walls or ceiling. A poetry reading is an aural experience which can be completely spoilt if the audience can't hear the poet properly.

Money

Make sure that the question of fees is raised, negotiated, settled and put in writing. Carry out a bit of informal research to come up with a going rate, which will help you decide what fee you are prepared to offer in your letter of invitation.

Alternatively, it's fine to ask poets what they usually charge. However, if you have more than one poet on the bill you can bet they will compare notes in the bar afterwards - a very uncomfortable moment for the organiser if they have been paid different amounts. Some well-known festivals avoid this embarrassment by paying one flat fee across the board, regardless of the starriness of individual poets.

Remember that travel costs will have to be paid, and accommodation if needed (usually in a known, reliable hotel or B&B). Putting the poet up in the organiser's home is one way of keeping costs down and can be a welcome chance to get to know one another... but ask first! One poet famously described the experience as "like a one-night stand without the sex".

Introductions

Introducing the poets is an important part of the organiser's job, requiring advance preparation. Factual information should be taken from a reliable source and you should check that it's up-to-date. It can be nice to add a few personal thoughts about the poet's work, but keep these short, friendly and non-controversial - if in doubt, check them with the poet in advance.

Open Floor readers

As John Heath-Stubbs neatly puts it, a poetry reading "should finish before the pubs close and not too many people should be encouraged to read from the floor". Open Floor sessions are extremely popular, and are often lively, vibrant occasions. Many poets who now give paid readings started out by signing up for a three-minute slot at an Open Floor. It's also probably true that some audience members are motivated as much by the chance to read their own work as by a burning desire to hear the guest poet!

If you're thinking of combining an Open Floor session with a guest reading, think hard about how to structure the event so that it works well. Limit the number of Open Floor slots and make sure readers know there is a strict time-limit. In Alison Croggon's words, "it can be dull for an audience if the schedule goes pear-shaped because one poet thinks five means forty."

Your guest poet may well want to listen and applaud along with everyone else, but remember that he or she will have heard hundreds of Open Floor readings over the years. It might be kind to offer the chance to slip away to the bar for a few minutes...

Equipment

Whether or not you provide a microphone will depend on the space. If one is needed, make sure it's a good quality model - a bad microphone distorts the voice and is worse than none at all. A few poets seem never to have grasped the basics of microphone technique. You might want to arrange a sound-check before the audience arrives; this is your chance to make sure everything's working properly, while at the same time demonstrating how to adjust the height of the stand and position yourself at the right distance.

A table or lectern is useful, so that poets don't have to juggle papers and books. Water is essential, and the really thoughtful organiser opens the bottle and pours some into a glass beforehand - simple tasks like these can feel very difficult when all eyes are on you and the adrenalin is flowing.

Q and A

Poets are divided on the issue of the question-and-answer session: some love it, others loathe it. It can add another dimension for the audience, making the event more interactive and friendly; but some poets, like Les Murray, feel that it "involves a vertiginous shift of mood and should be avoided if at all possible to respect the magic of the occasion". The best approach is to ask your poet at the time of booking, and be flexible enough to respect his or her preference.

Books and CDs for sale

It's hard to make money out of poetry books sold in bookshops, but readings are another matter. These events are where the real enthusiasts gather, and the organiser has a clear role in encouraging audiences to buy. There is a special opportunity where Archive poets are concerned: they have all made full-length recordings which are available on CD, and this makes it possible for audience members who have enjoyed the reading to take the poet's voice away with them and listen at home.

Sometimes poets will bring books and recordings for sale, and sometimes you will need to order them from publishers; ask the poet for guidance on this. It is important to ask, because when poets supply their own books and CDs they may be able to keep some or all of the proceeds themselves.

Alan Brownjohn stresses the importance of positioning the book table prominently "where people can inspect it in comfort, and away from the door." Announce in your introduction that books and CDs are available to buy, and that the poet will be happy to sign them. Repeat the announcement at the interval. If you have offered to sell on the poet's behalf, take a float with you, keep count of sales and remember to hand over the money before the poet leaves.

The personal touch

Make a point of thanking your guest poets and congratulating them on their readings; it can be a nerve-wracking business and a compliment or two go a long way.

Dannie Abse offers this simple, sure-fire recipe for making your poet feel good: "A proper fee for the reading, and much flattery!".

Invite a poet

Some of the poets in the Archive make visits to schools, to work with pupils and teachers. If you're a teacher interested in making this happen in your school, these notes will help you take the first steps.
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