We get a lot of messages from our students asking us how to organise a poetry reading, so we’ve gathered all of our favourite pointers and suggestions into this handy guide. Anything we’ve missed? Let us know your top gig tips in the comments.
First Find Your Venue
· How many people do you want to invite to your reading? Will they be sitting or standing? What dates do you have in mind? Have you got a budget in mind, or are you looking for a free space? Know your parameters, and start to draw up a wish list of possible venues.
· Double check poetry calendars and events listings before settlings on a date to make sure you don’t clash with another event nearby.
· There’s a short list below of London poetry venues that we know and like – but there’s room for more. Let us know your favourites in the comments – especially venues outside London – and we’ll make a longer list.
· Popular venues include traditional venues like The Betsey Trotwood, Travelling Through Bookshop,Poetry Café, LRB Bookshop, Keats House, Torriano Meeting House, Tea House Theatre, Troubadour, The Book Club, The Social and various pubs, theatre-bars and art galleries.
· If you’re going to use a pub, find one with a separate room closed off from the bar to avoid noise bleeding in from other rooms and people wandering in mid-reading.
· Consider whether the venue has a PA and, if not, whether one would be appropriate. Poets may need a microphone if reading in a large space or over background noise. However, reading with a PA in a small quiet room can be overwhelming. You will also need to make sure that you have someone to operate the PA if you do decide to have one. N.B. it’s very difficult to operate the PA and compere (and work the door) at the same time!
· Think about accessibility: will everyone attending and involved in your event actually be able to get into the reading space comfortably? Is it on the ground floor, is there a lift, is there wheelchair access and an accessible loo? Are there enough places to sit? Will the acoustics work for everyone?
· Make sure to contact your chosen venue in good time before the reading, so as to iron out any queries well in advance and guarantee your event is in their schedule. Also make sure to maintain communication in the build-up to the event, so you are not forgotten.
· Are you charging for entry, or will your reading be free? If you’re charging, look at events with a similar profile to yours as a guideline to what you should charge. Eventbrite or similar online ticket sellers can deal with the transactions for you, but will charge a fee. Bear in mind that more people will say they are coming to a free reading than actually turn up. Do you need to charge a nominal £1 or £2 to firm up people’s commitment?
· If you’re also selling tickets on the door, have you got someone who can organise that for you? They’ll always need more change than you think.
· If you charge for tickets, where is the money going? Room hire fees, publicity costs? Is there enough in your budget to offer poets a fixed fee, or a share of the door take?
· We all know that the poetry economy is not one in which people get rich, but at the very least, it should not cost your poets to perform. Is it fair to invite people from out of town to read if you can’t cover their travel expenses? If you invite people to read, don’t ask them to buy a ticket.
· Think about what you can do for your poets instead: If you can’t pay them, can you mention their new book in your intro? Buy them a drink? Offer them a couple of guest tickets? Can you set up a stall so they can sell their books?
The Reading Itself
· As a rule of thumb, a reading shouldn’t last more than two hours in total, and you’ll need to give the audience a breather after an hour. Unless you’re holding a rapid-fire open mic night, don’t book too many readers – you probably need at least 5 minutes from each poet.
· Give some thought to the order in which the poets will read, considering which readers would complement each other and which ones might need some distance between them.
· If you’re holding your event in a bar, your hosts will appreciate regular breaks to allow people to top up their drinks.
· A further note on timings, garnered from years of experience! Poets overrun and punters turn up late. Tell your poets they’ve got 5 minutes if you want them to do 8. Advertise the start time as (at least) 15 minutes before you actually want to start.
· Is there a microphone, or will the poets be loud enough without one? If there is a mic, does everyone know how to use it? Do you need to have a sound-check with your readers before the crowds arrive?
· Who is going to host or compere the reading? It’s generally good to have someone introduce the whole event and the readers, so as to give the audience some idea of the structure of the night and some contextual information about the poets. Consider the length of your introductions, and weigh up whether the audience are there to hear the compere or the poets.
· Try to keep this brief and break it down to introduce the poets in each particular section, rather than all in one go, so as to avoid overwhelming an audience with names and facts before they’ve even heard any poems.
· Make sure you’ve got enough people helping … it’s very difficult to compere, run the door, and run a sound-board / PA at the same time: levels and music need adjusting while you’re on stage, people will turn up late and want to come in, it’s distracting for the compere to be up and down the whole time. Recruit your friends.
Rattle Up the Crowds
· Your readers are your best marketing tool – treat them well and encourage them to promote the gig where they can, especially on social media.
· An online presence is very important for people to find out about you but that doesn’t have to be a website: a good, up-to-date Facebook page is often better.
· Use your network: people and organisations are often very happy to share marketing material. Think about who your audience is, and who the best organisations are to ask. If you’re after a young audience, try a university creative writing department, for example.
· Make things easy for people: people or organisations will often post a pre-written ‘suggested’ tweet, or include a pre-written bit of newsletter copy, but they’re unlikely to type it out themselves.
· Encourage your venue to include your event on their website / in their calendar, and do their share of promotion.