I’ve been giving a lot of readings around town lately, with my new nonfiction book and my almost new poetry book. If you’ve attended readings before, I’m sure you’ve noticed the wide variety of styles, and how some people are easier to listen to than others.

I don’t believe, if a poem is effective, that it needs much, if any of an introduction. I once listened to a poet, who shall remain nameless, describe virtually everything that happened in the poem before he read it. When we were finally allowed to hear the poem, it was simply a repetition. Your reader and listener deserves more than that. (Or would that be less than that?)

And where would we be without our readers and listeners?

Here are a few guidelines for performing your poetry. If they make sense for you, feel free to use them:

  1. As you approach the podium, be sure to smile and thank whoever is hosting you. Generosity is always good.
  2. If you are reading, hold your book up so that your voice carries into the room. If you have a microphone, test it and ask the people at the back if they can hear you.
  3. Nervous? I used to be, too. What helps me is to focus on the work. This isn’t about me. This is about getting the work into the world.
  4. Speak the poem slowly and distinctly. If you feel you are going too slow, it is probably just right. People can not hear as fast as we can talk, and, since every word in poetry is important, your audience needs to hear every word.
  5. This is a tricky one. You must be “present” in the poem, meaning you must allow the emotion to come through. But be careful how much you let in. Even devoted audiences will squirm if you start blubbering.
  6. Resist the urge to speed up at the end. The end is every bit as important as the rest of it. If anything, slow down so that your listeners can savor the moment.

Here is a selection of three of my more popular poems to give you some examples. River Prayer is paced a little like a flowing river. It’s kind of wonderful to have your pace match your poem. This poem is about my father and his last hours. In writing it, I imagined what was happening to him inside as he was making the transition. I usually don’t introduce this poem at all.


The old man was not really in a rowboat

under the Mississippi River bridge.

He was in the process of turning

inside himself, as we all will do one day.

Inside, he was finalizing the finished

and unfinished business of his life.

I just made up the part about him in a rowboat,

fishing being some of his best times.

In the rowboat, he tied a hook on a line,

fashioned a slab of plywood into an oar,

nailed, plugged, chopped and welded

all the materials of his backbreaking years.

This was great work for him and his face

was pinched with effort. Beads of sweat

glinted on his forehead as he gently laid

each of the items back into the water

from which they came, I imagine. The river

was grateful and in return rocked him

in its faithful current downstream

toward home,

which was a warm house filled with sisters

and all his old friends and Ma right there,

there, baking bread in the wood stove

from a recipe in her head.

This next poem changed titles when my book came together. Since the second chapter was titled “Praise and Howl,” this seemed a good way to start the Howl section. Again, I rarely preface this poem at all.


When the world does end, it will all return to the breath.

We will all go back to whatever brought us here

in the first place. There will be no lingering by the remains

of a dancing bonfire. No more music, no more hors d’oeuvres.

There will be brief conversation among the terns

and then every sky and lake will go seamless.

There will be no great beyond, no weeds, no people

to conquer, nothing new to learn.

A great curtain will descend, black, of course,

the absence of color. The wind will abate

and a code of silence will be strictly enforced.

No more bouquets of swallowtail butterflies.

No more demonstrations for peace.

There will be no sun settling its ungainly bulk

at world’s edge, spilling gold all over

the upturned face of a mountain.

People in your audience appreciate something light within a reading. Poetry is hard work to listen to, and if you can include some type of humor, you’re ahead of the game. Sometimes I dedicate this one to someone in the audience who has a little dog.


I was busy creating my destiny until someone

pointed out that I am a poodle. Miniature, no less.

Someone grooms me on a regular basis. I am let out

when I go to the door. On the top of my head is a pompom

poof with a pink bow and I wriggle when people pet me

right there, under my chin, a little more to the left.

Now that I know, it is not so bad, being a poodle,

lapdog to the movers and shakers.

I am prized in those circles. My senses are keen.

I can scratch in public. Not much is expected of me.

It is good to go for walks and visit my friends

the trees, drink the nectar of the autumn sky, my

little heart pumping fast and all that dog traffic,

ecstatically ripe and effusive.

(c)Linda Back McKay

Don’t be afraid to contact bookstores and other venues and pitch a reading for yourself. Many places are more open than you might think. Team up with another poet, to double your potential audience and interest.