How to give a poetry reading


The Little Snoring Poetry Group have written to you asking if you would come and read to them some of your poems and answer questions about your writing. You are only too glad to accept. The date is set.

You prepare your poems and notes. You practise your new poem in front of the mirror. You rehearse a few anecdotes. You gargle.

You arrive at the venue early. You quickly learn it is not called Little Snoring for nothing. The organiser is nowhere to be found. In attendance is a cleaner and a man in an anorak with a lever arch file under each arm. The cleaner looks at his watch, hacks back some phlegm, and tells you he will be here any minute.

Before the man with the files can speak to you, you pretend you have left something in your car.

Twenty minutes later two figures appear at the edge of the car park. Even in the gathering dusk they are recognisable as the organiser and his wife, in the middle of a furious row. Timing is everything, you tell yourself, emerging from your car just as the organiser is shouting to his wife that it was her job to buy the dog biscuits and his to buy the white wine for the poetry reading, not the other way round.

There is a silence. All of a sudden, the three of you break out in a fit of introductions and handshakes as though nothing has happened. The organiser and his wife escort you into the venue, asking after your journey. You remark what a beautiful evening it is.

Inside the venue a semicircle of chairs has appeared. Ten of them, in one continuous row, at the end of which sits the man with the lever arch files and the anorak, slowly turning his pages. Feigning a light-hearted tone you say ‘Expecting a big crowd are we?’ The organiser gives a shrug and a wince. ‘We did get double figures once,’ he says.

The organiser’s wife emerges from the kitchen at the back of the hall carrying a tray with three glasses of wine and a small bowl of crisps. You suddenly realise you have not eaten since breakfast. You take a large gulp of wine. It is undrinkable. You snatch at the bowl of crisps, almost emptying it a single handful. Unable to decide which tastes worse, you proceed in the same manner, alternating between fiery wine and floury crisps, until the reading is due to start.

The organiser brings out a wooden lectern from which you will be reading. He places this some twenty yards away from the assembled chairs. You notice there is no microphone. A woman has joined the audience. She sits at the opposite end end of the row from the man with the anorak.

It is five minutes until the reading is due to start. The organiser approaches you carrying a clipboard. ‘So after some parish notices,’ he says, ‘it’s traditional for members of the group to read one of their own compositions, before, ah, our esteemed guest takes to the stage. That’s you, by the way,’ he says, poking you in the ribs, neatly spilling your wine. You tell him this will be fine. You ask him where you might find the bathroom.

On your way back to the hall from the bathroom, you pause in the hallway of the building. Five more people have joined the audience, including a groovy young couple and a teenage girl dressed entirely in black. The man is still wearing his anorak; the woman has brought out her knitting. From the corner of your eye you notice a large cat sitting perfectly upright and still at the end of the row of chairs, gazing intently at the lectern. You notice a pool of liquid seems to be seeping from underneath the cat towards the lectern.

You are a professional, you can do this, you say to yourself, as your fingers make their unconscious way towards your car keys, its doors blinking open in the darkness, letting out a small squeal of delight.


  1. This really made me laugh! Captures beautifully the existential angst of the invited poet! Little Snoring, like Little Gidding, is clearly a reality check for those to whom poetry, and especially writing poetry, really matters. Thank you. (Think of those uneatable crisps and that undrinkable wine as a sort of nectar which makes poets immortal!) Reminds me of a reading given by Andrew Motion at the Miners’ Hall in Durham way back in June 2002, just before the Miners’ Gala, for which I composed the following:

    Bringing poetry to the Grim North

    Your reading, Andrew, at the Miners’ Hall
    Was, thanks to its austere, galleried-and-pewed
    Setting, largely inaudible. But all
    Were impressed. Your standing as First Poet-dude
    Of the Realm guaranteed that. We, of course,
    Sat patiently. as a monument discoursed…
    And though your crowd-pleasing self-deprecation
    Rarely reached beyond the first row of pews,
    We sensed the sphinx in you telling the nation
    That poetry mattered. You were our muse!
    Downing our cheap plonk, glancing at your wrist,
    You will have been the first to appreciate
    The ironies of milieu, timing, place…
    In fourteen days the miners ‘celebrate’…..


    1. Hello Brian
      Thank you for reminding us that even Laureates have to go through these experiences.
      ‘Glancing at your wrist’ indeed.
      I’ve seen them do it.
      As ever with good wishes


  2. At least you got the groovy young couple and the teenager: the danger is that the audience comprises entirely the greyhaired, giving an “ah” of satisfaction when you read a poem about a pet or days gone by.


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