While we all love curling up on the couch with a great book of poetry and a warm cup of tea (or a cool cup of something stronger maybe, in this heat wave!), one of the best ways to get out and meet our fellow writers and readers is by attending a poetry reading. Many cities across Canada are bursting with regular reading series (check out our Hitting the Road series to find something in your area), but not everywhere is so lucky. So we want to help you host your own poetry reading! This is a resource that can always be updated, and should always be considered incomplete–the best part about starting your own reading is the freedom to push boundaries and create something new. If you would like to add something to our tips, email firstname.lastname@example.org
WHY HOST A READING?
Readings give writers a unique opportunity to share their work, receive immediate feedback, and interact with other artistic people. As a bunch of introverts, it can be tough getting out and about to find out what other people are up to–readings provide a comfortable space to hear what other people are working on, catch up with familiar faces, or meet new people in your community. Hosting a reading is a great way to give back to the community in a tangible and interactive way. We think Leaguer Jacob McArthur Mooney sums it up quite nicely in this interview with IFOA: “I think everyone who wants to participate in the insider economy of public poetry, by publishing or reading published work, owes a debt to the community that helped grunt it into being. It is not enough to just gift the world your beautiful words and your great brain. Everyone should have to serve. How they do that is up to them: mentorship, reviewing, teaching, hosting, grant-writing, paid and unpaid work. But everyone should get out and push the bus up the hill a bit. And running Pivot is how I choose to push.”
TYPES OF READINGS
Readings can showcase anything. No, really: anything. Poetry, fiction, non-fiction, plays, music, comedy, and so on. Some of the most exciting readings combine several of these elements to draw a larger crowd and create connections between artistic communities in the same area. Readings can benefit from having very loose stylistic guidelines, but they can also benefit from serving a niche audience. No matter what types of readers you envision having on your stage, it’s important to consider how they will interact with the audience you hope to draw to your event.
- Poetry slams are a competition-style reading where poets sign up at the start of the night and read one poem at a time. These often feature spoken word and performative poetry, as readers have just one chance to impress a group of strangers in the hopes of making it to the next round. Judges are often randomly selected audience members, who judge each poem on a ten-point scale. Most poetry slams have three rounds, and the poets who make it through to each subsequent round must read a new poem each time. Poetry slams can be informal, but there is also a national poetry slam organization, Spoken Word Canada, which organizes a national competition each year. The Toronto Poetry Slam offers a clear outline of how its season is structured, including scoring practices and team formation.
- Ongoing reading series can, again, feature any variety or combination of genres and styles. Most reading series take place once per month, on the same day each month (the third Thursday, for example)–others occur every other week, every other month, or some even take place weekly. When deciding how often you’d like to host your series, consider the network of writers you’re hoping to book from (will you run out of writers if you host too often?), local competition (will you be dividing a pre-existing audience?), payment for readers, and your own limits as the organizer.
- Special events and readings can be one-off events like book launches, hosting an out-of-town reader, or readings organized to coincide with another event (for example, many people organized special readings in Toronto around the time of the Canadian Writers Summit).
SPICE UP THE NIGHT
Whether you’re planning a reading in a city saturated with events, or in a remote town where literary events are few and far between, you want to think about what your reading can give to its audience. Here are some interesting ways of creating more ways for audience engagement at your reading:
- Add an interview segment. A short Q&A session with a “headlining” reader can be a huge draw for audience members, particularly if the interviewee is from out of town, or has recently won an award (or published a book, or started a new project, etc.).
- Save time for an open mic. Open mics are important to emerging writers, as it’s one of the only places they can go to share new work and receive an immediate reaction. These are also an excellent way to meet new writers in your community who could end up on your stage as a featured reader sometime! Most open mic sessions have 5-10 open slots where people can read for up to 3 minutes (or one poem, whichever comes first). Sign-up usually takes place at the start of the evening or during the first break, depending on when the open mic will take place. Often they are at the end of the night, but it’s been great to see readings switching up the format: some host the open mic right at the start of the night, and others will intersperse open mic readers throughout the evening.
- Partner with others in your community. A great way to bring out more people to an event is to plan a joint evening with another organization: your regular reading series could partner with a local chapbook press one evening to function as a book launch, for instance–or maybe you’re a publisher with an author coming through town on a new book tour, and you want to approach a local reading series to host them for one evening. It’s even great to partner up on one-off events!
- Make it an afternoon. Many readings take place on weeknights at bars or coffee shops, which can be hard for people who work strange hours, or who have young children, or who live out of town. One of our favourite reading series takes place in someone’s living room on a Sunday afternoon each month–this kind of reading requires a certain degree of pre-established network, but can turn into a unique and special event that can grow quite quickly. Switching up the time and venue from the “norm” can be a unique draw.
- Find a venue. Many traditional event spaces charge high fees for use of the space, which can be problematic if the only income you’re getting from your reading is from a PWYC jar. Bars, pubs, coffee shops, art galleries, and libraries are just a few of the most popular alternative venues for readings. When looking for a space that best suits your reading, consider whether it’s all-ages (some venues are all-ages until a certain point in the evening), whether it’s fully accessible, whether it’s near public transit, whether there is parking nearby, and what other events usually take place in the venue. Choosing a central location can be great for a new reading series, but in some cities (Toronto, for example), there are a high concentration of reading series that take place in one small area of the city, while more northern (or eastern, or western) areas of the city are host to few or no literary events. Ask other artists where they have attended events in the past, or if they’ve ever hosted an event, if you’re having trouble starting the search for a venue.
- Book your readers. Obviously, this is the heart of hosting a reading, and what will make or break the event. The best reading series feature a wide range of authors from as many backgrounds as possible! If you’re running out of reader ideas, check in with any local writing courses to see if students (or professors!) might be interested in reading, reach out to publishers to find out if they have any authors in your area, check out what’s going on at your local library, and even just take a look to see who other reading series are hosting right now. Many times, writers will have their contact information available on their website. If they don’t, you can see if they are a part of the League or TWUC–national writing organizations with member directories that often feature contact information. If you’re still unable to contact them, try going through their publisher, or asking around to see if you have any mutual friends or colleagues who may be able to connect you. We recommend contacting your readers as early as possible, at least two months in advance of your event. A standard feature set at a poetry reading can be anywhere from 7 to 20 minutes, depending on how long you have the space for and how many readers you want to invite. Three or four 10-15 minute sets is a fairly ubiquitous structure for an evening of readings.
- Pay your readers. Getting poets paid is at the heart of what we do here at the League, so we believe this is an incredibly important element of hosting a reading. Even a token payment of $10-15 helps the reader feel their time and craft are valued. Ideally, readers will be paid $100-200 for a reading around 15 minutes long. There are a few ways of gathering the funds to pay your readers: the most common form of gathering reader payment is with a Pay-What-You-Can (PWYC) donation jar circulated the night of the event. Donation jars can be fruitful, but there may also be nights where a PWYC jar only brings in $10–total. Reading series are often eligible for municipal, provincial, and federal funding from arts organizations like the Toronto Arts Council, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Canada Council for the Arts. Organizers can apply for Literary Projects grants to help supplement the cost of reading fees. This list may be a good jumping-off point for finding the organization that best suits your project. If you are hosting a full member of the League, you may be able to apply for funding specifically for their reading–find out more about our funding programs here.
- Promote your event. More and more, it’s important to have an online presence for your event. Having an online presence makes it easy for other people and organizations to share your event widely on a variety of platforms–more than just having a poster or a few paragraphs of promotional copy. Facebook is the most prominent online event platform, but sites like Eventbrite are also free and easy to use and share. You can send 1-2 paragraphs of description, along with a poster and a link to your online event, to libraries, colleges, and writing organizations to help spread the world. (It helps to include a few suggested Tweets as well! Make sure to include a shortened version of the link and keep it down to the appropriate number of characters.) You’ll also want to submit it to any online or physical event boards, like BlogTO and Open Book Toronto (for events in Toronto). You’ll want to start sharing your event 3-7 weeks before the big day.
- Have fun! You want to make the best evening possible for you, your fellow organizers, your readers, and your audience. The best way to do this is to relax! Greet everyone who shows up and introduce yourself–it can be really nervewracking heading out to a brand new event where you don’t know anybody, and this little gesture on your part can go a long way. Have bios from your readers on hand to read before you introduce them onto the stage to make them feel welcome and appreciated. Thank all the participants profusely! And give yourself a big pat on the back for pulling it all together.