Readings: Give one, Go to One

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve gone to a lot of arts events: a live paint, the poignant destruction of unsold art, two pops concerts in which my daughter performed, Record Store Day that included live music, two poetry readings.

One of those poetry readings was given by poetry icon Gary Snyder. The other one was given by me.

Not that there’s any comparison. And I am glad that I saw Gary Snyder after I gave my own reading or I may not have read. I would have been too busy thinking that I’ll never be that beloved, never be at that level of literary skill, never be that comfortable in front of a room full of people who are there to listen to me.

Oh, the ways I can completely derail myself.

But I’m here to tell you that there’s nothing like reading your own work to an audience to shake up how you see what you’ve done. In my case, the reading was a private affair at a friend’s house. This meant I knew everyone in the audience. Before the reading began, I thought about how I would rather read to a bunch of people I didn’t know. I sure as hell didn’t want my friends and family to think poorly of what I did as a writer or have them discover that I’m not at all the person they thought I was. What if they decided they really didn’t ever want to hear or read anything of mine again once this reading was over? What if I embarrassed my kids or my partner? Or the person who hosted the evening?

Naturally, the only remedy was to have a bit of Irish whiskey and plunge into the reading anyway.

The good news is that no one fell asleep. No one wretched. They all actively listened, asked questions, said nice things. My kids are still speaking to me. I got some feedback that helps me figure out what’s ready to submit and what needs to simmer longer. I deliberately chose to read only one thing that had been published and eight pieces that were new or newly revised.

And I would do it again. It’s way more interesting than sitting alone in my office, staring at the latest version of a poem that I’ve revised sixteen times, and it’s more rewarding than feedback from an online forum. I got to look people in the eye.

Now, fast-forward a couple of days to the Gary Snyder reading, which took place at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis in front of at least a thousand people. The atmosphere inside the church was crackly with expectation, an amazing thing for a poetry reading. Snyder, who has been writing for more than fifty years, was at ease as he read poems both old and new, told stories, encouraged people to be more thoughtful in their relationship with this shared planet (perfect since Earth Day is nigh), and generally enchanted the audience. He spoke for close to an hour and a half, and people listened.

That’s what happens after a lifetime of following one’s art: people really want to hear the voice behind that art. A reading shifts from being the place to try out new things to the place to celebrate what you’ve accomplished.

And the artist and audience still get to look each other in the eye.

So, while there’s still some of National Poetry Month left, back away from your computer. Go read your work to someone. Then find a reading to attend.

Do it right now.


  1. Irish whiskey is a cure for most things, I've found 😉
    I agree that reading in front of people can give you a whole new perspective on what you've written. I haven't read my writing out loud since school..actually I haven't shared it since then at all.
    Which is why, in tribute to NPM, I finally started my blog, and [gasp] am planning on posting a poem next week 🙂 A baby step towards reading it out loud…


  2. I agree Kathleen. The response of hearers or readers of your poetry is much more fulfilling and helpful than that of any editor or even other poets. I post a lot of poetry online simply because it makes it available to people and I often get read their responses to it in comments.

    I'm another Kathleen AND another Minnesota writer. 🙂


  3. Hi fellow Kathleen and Minnesotan! Thanks for stopping by.
    Don't discount the help editors can give, as well as other poets, in spite of how fulfilling reading your work aloud to others is. I didn't mean to imply that any one type of feedback is more valuable than another; I really believe we can get what we need in a variety of places and they all have their value for different aspects of how we develop as writers and artists. That said, you may have guessed that I am an editor in another part of my life! Hope you stop by again.


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