Karen Finneyfrock’s Opinionated Tips on Creating a Great Poetry Reading in a High School

by Karen Finneyfrock

Before beginning my work as a Teaching Artist for Writers-in-the-Schools, I coordinated and hosted poetry events ranging from open mikes and festivals to the Seattle Poetry Slam. For years, I hosted the literary arts stage at Bumbershoot and I had the honor of hosting Finals Night at the National Poetry Slam in 2005. After years of studying the mechanics of a successful poetry event, I offer these highly opinionated tips on producing an engaging poetry event for a high school that students and teachers will love.

  1. Day and Time. Your event can happen during school or in the evening. Either way, some effort should be made to make the event feel distinct from an assembly or classroom event. If you have the event in class, rearrange the chairs and lighting. If you have it in a theatre, use lighting and staging to create an atmosphere good for listening. Put in the effort to set the right mood. A lot of schools choose to do readings in April to honor National Poetry Month.
  2. Choosing a Host. Use a charming, funny emcee. A host who lovingly works to engage the audience makes all the difference for a successful reading. If you plan to do the reading annually or even more often, use the same host. This person will understand the job better and improve each time. Find someone gregarious and warm. Give that person a lot of leeway in how engage the crowd and keep the show moving. If you decide to use a student as the host, give him or her a teacher co-host to work with.
  3. Name your Reading. Avoid cliché names like, “High School Poetry Jam.” Pick something more evocative, maybe a line from a poem. The first reading I hosted was called, “YAWP,” honoring Walt Whitman, “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.” Have a poster made if you are inviting students outside your class.
  4. Stack the Deck. Talk to the students who like poetry and could give a good reading. Make sure they are willing to read. Place them strategically in your line-up so that other students can see how it is done. Make sure they have the time and space to prepare their reading.
  5. Audience. This is where my strong opinions come into play. I discourage inviting students who are likely to disrupt the good vibes at your reading. Although it might be beneficial for that student to be exposed to poetry, it is critical to create a safe space for the students who will get up on the microphone and bravely expose their art. I suggest starting small and educating your audience on how to support each other in this brave undertaking. Once you have a solid core of students who are participating positively, that would be a time to invite students who might not be the best sports about listening to poetry.
  6. Setting the Tone. The hardest work of creating a successful reading is creating the right atmosphere among audience members. The vibe should be similar to seeing a play, in that the audience is respectful and acknowledges that students have worked hard on the performances they are about to give. However, I like the encourage positive audience participation at poetry readings. Here are my instructions:                                                                                    Remember, we ALL get scared about reading in public. Your classmates are going to get up here and do something brave, because the act of creating art requires bravery. Let’s support and encourage each other like crazy. Snapping: If you hear a line of poetry that you like, you can snap your fingers WHILE the poet is reading. Rubbing your hands together: If the poet is getting flustered, forgetting her poem or needs encouragement, you can rub your hands together. Clapping: When a poet’s name is called to get up or after a poet reads, let’s all clap uproariously!!!
  7. Inviting a Guest Poet. If you have a little budget for your reading, invite a local spoken word artist to participate. Make sure to find a poet who is a competent performer and has performed in front of high school students before. Even poets who have been published widely can be intimidated by a high school audience. It is really important to find someone who will engage with your students. Give the poet a particular length of time to read (maybe 10 min.) and be clear about expectations including what is appropriate for the age group. Don’t put your guest on first in the show, warm up the mic with at least four readers first.
  8. Setting Ground Rules about Language and Content. Although I don’t support censoring artistic creation, we all understand the concept of keeping things accessible for a wider audience. I usually tell students to write anything they want in their notebooks, and they can generally read anything in class, but when we take it to a bigger stage, I ask them to think about grandparents or young kids who might be at the reading. If it will only be other students, I ask them to really consider what feels school appropriate. The one hard and fast rule I enforce: NO ATTACKING ANYONE ELSE FROM STAGE. No mean poems about your ex-boyfriend or the girl you hate. I will stop a poet mid-poem if this is happening.
  9. Use a Band or DJ. Hiring a DJ to spin in between poets is a great way to liven up your reading. Alternately, having a band play at the top and end of the show can be a cool addition. Just remember: the focus of the show is the poets, so don’t upstage your own reading by having a band play for too long. You can allow musicians into your open mike reading, but it isn’t always the best match with poetry.
  10. Time Limits. A good rule of thumb is no more than 3 minutes per poet. Ask readers to time themselves and practice before reading. Keep the show moving at an engaging pace.
  11. Make your reading as special and safe for your students as possible. Practice with students in class before the reading. Read something yourself so that you know how scary it is and you can share in the brave act of creating and sharing art! If your first poetry reading is a big hit, every reading after it will be easy. Good Luck!
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