A Poetic Affair to Remember:
Making Your Poetry Event Memorable

By Cristina M.R. Norcross

In a world of endless entertainment options, unless you are a poetry lover or a writer yourself, attending a poetry reading can seem daunting and unapproachable.
I am not suggesting that you have a big Ferris wheel going in the background or a ring toss game to bring in an audience, but there are some creative ways that poets can make their cultural events interesting and fun while highlighting the inspiring work of poetry itself.

Here are some tips for poets who are looking to change the literary scene, expose a broader spectrum of the population to poetry and help promote the works of fellow local poets.

Create Atmosphere

Location, location, location!  Choosing an interesting venue may bring in couples having a stroll after dinner.  A library or a local bookstore is always a good option, but what about choosing a coffeehouse, a café or an art gallery to host your poetry event?  In February 2010, I had a book launch party for my new collection, Unsung Love Songs, at the Arta Vina Gallery in Waukesha, WI.  Our guests enjoyed walking around the gallery both before the show and during the intermission, viewing an innovative array of original artwork by sculptors, painters, glass artists, jewelry designers and multi-media artists.

Provide different modes of entertainment to appeal to more people—have live music!  Inviting a local musician to perform, while waiting for your audience to arrive, allows people time to mingle and get in the mood for an artistic evening.  You will also be providing a different venue for the musician—a new audience.  Have either the same or a different musician for your intermission.  Music and poetry flow well together.  When the music ends, it is also a good cue for audience members to take their seats and enjoy more poetic verse.

Invite Other Poets

The more poets, the merrier, and your audience will be bigger too!  If you invite other poets to be featured readers with you, or have an open mic portion to the evening, you will not be the only poet standing up there.  Holding an audience’s attention for a long stretch of time is not an easy task, so give your vocal chords a break and spread the wealth by sharing the stage.  Poets do not often have opportunities to share their work in a public setting, especially in towns that are not close to urban centers.  The minute we hear there is an open reading going on, we come out of the woodwork with our folders and chapbooks in hand, just waiting to share our latest poetic offerings.  Inviting other poets also helps to extend your network of writer friends, and you will in turn be invited to their poetry readings.  Because writing can be such a solitary activity, group poetry readings are good for the writer’s soul.  Meeting other poets and hearing their work is inspiring and encouraging, and it helps to cultivate a nurturing, literary community.

Poetry for a Good Cause

Use your talents to help others.  Find a way to create a charity benefit aspect to your event.  Serving the community through the arts is a creative way to bring interest and support for all those involved.  For the past five years, The Wasteland Poets have sponsored a wonderful poetry reading and open mic event at Martha Merrell’s Bookstore in Waukesha, WI to benefit the Waukesha Food Pantry.  Not only do they accept monetary donations, but those attending are asked to bring canned good items for the food pantry.  At my recent book launch, I donated all proceeds from book sales on that night to the American Heart Association to raise awareness of heart health and generate funds for research.

Serve Refreshments

Feed your audience and they will be content and stay longer.  Serve light fare, but make it tasty and fun.  Be creative—if it is an evening event, do a wine tasting with gourmet cheeses or small appetizers.  If it is a daytime reading, have a fresh fruit platter.  If your event is in the fall, provide hot cider and cookies.  You could even ask a local chocolate shop to sponsor a gourmet chocolate tasting.  If you have tables, put out small platters at each one, or have a buffet style setting in a central location that encourages both audience members and poets to mingle and discuss the poetry performed that night.

Have a “Promote Yourself” Table for All Poets

Show them your stuff!  Encourage your featured readers and open mic poets in advance of the show to bring their business cards, postcards, chapbooks and books with them.  Provide a table where poets can display their work.  You may increase your readership, simply by showing the audience you have published works out there available to read.  If your show is at a local bookstore, this is a good time to ask the manager to carry your books.

Have poetic gifts to take home.  Creating poetry postcards or bookmarks with your website address or e-mail is a great way to make your poetry memorable for the audience.  I would suggest both VistaPrint.com and iPrint.com for these marketing materials.  These sites have interesting templates you can use to display a poem, or you can download your own design.  People love getting free items at events.  A bookmark will be kept longer and used more than a business card too.

Keep Them Coming Back for More!

Provide a guest book at your event.  If you have a guest book on display for both audience members and poets to sign, then the next time you have an event you will have a ready-made invitation list.  You will also have poets on hand who will love to be invited back for another reading. 

Promote the Event Well and Often

At least a month or more before your event, you should start creating a buzz!  Send a press release to all of the local print and on-line newspapers/magazines.  There is also a section on most sites for reader submitted stories.  This is a great option.  Have a short description of the event posted on websites and in newsletters for writers’ organizations in your state (for example, WRWA and WFOP in Wisconsin).  Spread your poetic news widely and let it multiply.  Post your event on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, and then ask your friends to post it on their profile pages.  List your event on your own website and blog.  Create a list of upcoming events in your e-mail signature, so that every e-mail you send advertises your poetry readings.  All of these tactics will increase the size of your audience and will help spread the word.  Remember all of those poets who are coming to read?  Ask them to forward the event announcement to their family and friends, including a digital version of the flyer as an attachment.  Last but not least, do not forget the grass roots tactic of posting flyers everywhere you think poetry loving people will see them:  libraries, bookstores, galleries, coffeehouses, cafés, community centers, local colleges and arts centers.

One Vision: A Fusion of Art and Poetry in Lake Country 

Looking for an interesting, upcoming event featuring poets and artists in October 2010?  I’m glad you asked.  Sponsored by the Pewaukee Area Arts Council, the project One Vision: A Fusion of Art and Poetry in Lake Country will have an art show and poetry reading featuring Wisconsin Lake Country artists and poets on October 16, 2010 at the Oconomowoc Arts Center.  For myself and my co-editor Liz Rhodebeck, this will be our second year pairing together visual artists and poets to create collaborative, ekphrastic works.  More information will be posted on the PAAC website (www.pewaukeearts.org) closer to the event date.

Poetry readings should be inspiring, fun and engaging.  Most of all, if you generate enough interest with an artistic atmosphere, musical guests, talented poetry readers, appetizing refreshments and free poetry postcards, you will find poetry readings multiplying in your area.  Create your own artistic revolution and bring poetry to the people.