[My Writing Life] Crying During Poetry Readings

Yesterday, I posted about a retreat/conference I was part of recently. As part of that, I was asked to present a Pick 5 booktalk of 5 great recent poetry books. And I only had 5 minutes. Well, the best way to share a poetry book is to read a poem from it, so I chose one poem from each book. The problem was, one of my picks was October Mourning, by Leslea Newman. This stunning collection of poems about the?murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard?is heart-breaking, and I shared a couple of bits from it earlier here?(you have to scroll down a few paragraphs). I didn’t pick one of the most powerful poems that I knew I’d have trouble getting through, but still.?To my mortification, I started tearing up and had to pause and then just read through tears. My voice was breaking and 100+ people waited for me to get my act together. Oi.

I cry whenever I read completely powerful poems aloud. There are a number of mine that I never try to read aloud to groups. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with showing a poem affects you, but if you physically can’t continue because you’re choked up, that doesn’t show off a poem to its best advantage.

So, any tips for maintaining control during poetry readings? Please share! I want to share emotional, powerful poems, but I hesitate to.

P.S. If you want to see the other four books I shared, send me your email address and ask to sign up for my monthly e‑newsletter. I’ll send out my October issue to you, which shows all 5 books.

 

30 Responses

  1. My first response is that it’s really okay to cry during a poem, but if you can’t continue, I guess it’s something to control, Laura. I wish I had a good tip. Whenever I read something so powerful to my class, I just paused, then gulped probably, and went on. I’d love to have your newsletter. I didn’t know you had one & my e‑mail is embedded in the comment I think. I still haven’t read this book about Matthew Shepherd. I tried to get it at a recent book fair but they were sold out. Best to you in your readings.

    1. Yeah, the gulping I can live with. Often, if I practice a poem enough, I can get it to just the gulping stage. I hope you find this book soon…but it’s heartbreaking. Thanks–I’ll sign you up and you’ll get the email sometime this week.

  2. My first response is that it’s really okay to cry during a poem, but if you can’t continue, I guess it’s something to control, Laura. I wish I had a good tip. Whenever I read something so powerful to my class, I just paused, then gulped probably, and went on. I’d love to have your newsletter. I didn’t know you had one & my e‑mail is embedded in the comment I think. I still haven’t read this book about Matthew Shepherd. I tried to get it at a recent book fair but they were sold out. Best to you in your readings.

    1. Yeah, the gulping I can live with. Often, if I practice a poem enough, I can get it to just the gulping stage. I hope you find this book soon…but it’s heartbreaking. Thanks–I’ll sign you up and you’ll get the email sometime this week.

  3. I am not an expert on this, but I have read aloud all my life having taught for 40 years and continue to substitute teach a bit. Like anything I got better at it and learned a lot. I suggest that you think about the power of the effect of the poem on your listeners and not on your own reaction. (When you are “performing”.) Sort of move yourself one step away from the poem. In a way it is acting. The first time I tried to read aloud Where the Red Fern Grows as a very young teacher, I learned this. I didn’t want to cry in front of my students, but I did. Not from pride, but I thought it would upset them. I always hated it if my mother even hinted at crying. I also think you need to practice. Focus on the words and not the meaning when you are performing the poem in your reading. After you are done with a poem, take time to pause. Use your body, your eyes, your head to indicate the power the words have by either looking down, looking away or at the audience, if you can manage. But only briefly. Take a breath (deep or not) and begin the next. I wouldn’t say anything between the poems. Let the power of the poetry grab the listener. Once you are done with all of the poems you could make a comment about how these poems move you deeply. The listener will feel the pain through the poem itself. If you are crying they will be focused on you, so I agree it is a good thing to be sure you can read them. I suggest you listen to yourself reading the poems on your audio device many times. It has amazed me how my students and I have come to live inside poems as we recite them over and over. I find listening is a much easier way to learn a poem by heart then reading it over and over. I would love your newsletter.

    1. Janet–this is great advice. Not only the practical part but the mindset part. Thank you! I’m printing this out. And I’ll add you to my newsletter list–you’ll get the most recent one by the end of this week. Thanks!

      1. Did you see the video I sent you of my student reading your poem from Bookspeak? Her mom says you can use it if you like.

        1. What? No! Is this something you sent me recently? (Via email? Facebook message? Comment here on the blog?) Either it didn’t make it to me, or I’ve missed it somehow. Please let me know–I’m so eager to see this!

          1. Via two emails from me on Sunday. I will send again now. Both from gmail accounts but my phone is different from my regular one! You will like it!

  4. I am not an expert on this, but I have read aloud all my life having taught for 40 years and continue to substitute teach a bit. Like anything I got better at it and learned a lot. I suggest that you think about the power of the effect of the poem on your listeners and not on your own reaction. (When you are “performing”.) Sort of move yourself one step away from the poem. In a way it is acting. The first time I tried to read aloud Where the Red Fern Grows as a very young teacher, I learned this. I didn’t want to cry in front of my students, but I did. Not from pride, but I thought it would upset them. I always hated it if my mother even hinted at crying. I also think you need to practice. Focus on the words and not the meaning when you are performing the poem in your reading. After you are done with a poem, take time to pause. Use your body, your eyes, your head to indicate the power the words have by either looking down, looking away or at the audience, if you can manage. But only briefly. Take a breath (deep or not) and begin the next. I wouldn’t say anything between the poems. Let the power of the poetry grab the listener. Once you are done with all of the poems you could make a comment about how these poems move you deeply. The listener will feel the pain through the poem itself. If you are crying they will be focused on you, so I agree it is a good thing to be sure you can read them. I suggest you listen to yourself reading the poems on your audio device many times. It has amazed me how my students and I have come to live inside poems as we recite them over and over. I find listening is a much easier way to learn a poem by heart then reading it over and over. I would love your newsletter.

    1. Janet–this is great advice. Not only the practical part but the mindset part. Thank you! I’m printing this out. And I’ll add you to my newsletter list–you’ll get the most recent one by the end of this week. Thanks!

      1. Did you see the video I sent you of my student reading your poem from Bookspeak? Her mom says you can use it if you like.

        1. What? No! Is this something you sent me recently? (Via email? Facebook message? Comment here on the blog?) Either it didn’t make it to me, or I’ve missed it somehow. Please let me know–I’m so eager to see this!

          1. Via two emails from me on Sunday. I will send again now. Both from gmail accounts but my phone is different from my regular one! You will like it!

  5. Wow, what a timely post. I just received a guest post from someone I’m having on my new poetry blog series and I cried the entire time I was reading it. Luckily, there is no audience in my office. But that’s how stories — even compact stories like poems — can affect us (emotional creative types that we are).

    The incredibly wise Janet F. beat me to it — I can only second everything she says. I’ve gotten emotional during public readings/speeches a few times too, and the best thing to combat it is to put on your actress hat. This takes a bit of…ego, I guess you could say, meaning it becomes about you wanting your audience to be affected by the poem the same way you are when your guard is down, and it’s up to you to take them on that journey. Seeing this as your “duty” as the presenter can help you put more emphasis on your performance — language, pacing, tone, etc. — and less on the meaning of the poem. Sounds weird, but if your performance is genuine and strong, the meaning will come through loud and clear. Does that make any sense? In a nutshell, take the focus off yourself and put it on your audience.

    It’s kind of like being a nurse, like my sister — they’ve seen so much awful stuff that eventually they form that protective shell, and it’s just another day at the office.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Renee. I’m so glad I posted this, because the advice you and Janet and Charles are giving me does make sense. And I love what you say about my duty, etc. Since I take the responsibility of sharing books seriously, having this idea that it’s my duty to pull back and not get lost in the poem (save that for home!) will hopefully help me maintain enough distance to not cry while reading. Thank you!

    2. Thanks for your find words, Renee. I also think that if you read the poem on your own privately a day or two ahead, let your emotions flow, but then when you read to your audience, let your voice send your energy and feelings out to your audience. And Renee is correct, they will get it!! There is also a difference when you know the poem by heart.…finally.….(this may take time) when you can control all those things Renee mentions about tone and pacing and it is even potentially more powerful IF you say it with careful expressiveness, not in a sing-song way.…I have no idea what the upper limit is to knowing poems by heart. Allan Wolf knows lots I know that!!!

  6. Wow, what a timely post. I just received a guest post from someone I’m having on my new poetry blog series and I cried the entire time I was reading it. Luckily, there is no audience in my office. But that’s how stories — even compact stories like poems — can affect us (emotional creative types that we are).

    The incredibly wise Janet F. beat me to it — I can only second everything she says. I’ve gotten emotional during public readings/speeches a few times too, and the best thing to combat it is to put on your actress hat. This takes a bit of…ego, I guess you could say, meaning it becomes about you wanting your audience to be affected by the poem the same way you are when your guard is down, and it’s up to you to take them on that journey. Seeing this as your “duty” as the presenter can help you put more emphasis on your performance — language, pacing, tone, etc. — and less on the meaning of the poem. Sounds weird, but if your performance is genuine and strong, the meaning will come through loud and clear. Does that make any sense? In a nutshell, take the focus off yourself and put it on your audience.

    It’s kind of like being a nurse, like my sister — they’ve seen so much awful stuff that eventually they form that protective shell, and it’s just another day at the office.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Renee. I’m so glad I posted this, because the advice you and Janet and Charles are giving me does make sense. And I love what you say about my duty, etc. Since I take the responsibility of sharing books seriously, having this idea that it’s my duty to pull back and not get lost in the poem (save that for home!) will hopefully help me maintain enough distance to not cry while reading. Thank you!

    2. Thanks for your find words, Renee. I also think that if you read the poem on your own privately a day or two ahead, let your emotions flow, but then when you read to your audience, let your voice send your energy and feelings out to your audience. And Renee is correct, they will get it!! There is also a difference when you know the poem by heart.…finally.….(this may take time) when you can control all those things Renee mentions about tone and pacing and it is even potentially more powerful IF you say it with careful expressiveness, not in a sing-song way.…I have no idea what the upper limit is to knowing poems by heart. Allan Wolf knows lots I know that!!!

  7. That’s a tough one. I guess you have to go outside of yourself, you have to care but not care at the same time. Let the words to the talking. Does that makes sense? At least that’s what I do.

    1. That’s what is so difficult! What I love poetry for me is that it breaks down the walls and makes me feel things more strongly. But that’s also what makes it hard to read the really powerful poems. Sigh. But I do see what you’re saying. A few times I’ve basically pretended to be someone else during a reading, and that helped a little bit. I guess I need to amp that approach up even more!

  8. That’s a tough one. I guess you have to go outside of yourself, you have to care but not care at the same time. Let the words to the talking. Does that makes sense? At least that’s what I do.

    1. That’s what is so difficult! What I love poetry for me is that it breaks down the walls and makes me feel things more strongly. But that’s also what makes it hard to read the really powerful poems. Sigh. But I do see what you’re saying. A few times I’ve basically pretended to be someone else during a reading, and that helped a little bit. I guess I need to amp that approach up even more!

  9. I have no advice, Laura, because I can’t do it! It sounds like you can if you have enough time to practice. Thinking like an actor seems like a good idea. I don’t think even practicing helps me, so I would just take the cowardly way out and pick an easier poem.

    1. You know, that’s good advice, too. When I don’t really have time for lots of advance prep (as in this case), picking a poem I KNOW I can deliver is the way to go. I’m all about the realistic and the practical:>)

  10. I have no advice, Laura, because I can’t do it! It sounds like you can if you have enough time to practice. Thinking like an actor seems like a good idea. I don’t think even practicing helps me, so I would just take the cowardly way out and pick an easier poem.

    1. You know, that’s good advice, too. When I don’t really have time for lots of advance prep (as in this case), picking a poem I KNOW I can deliver is the way to go. I’m all about the realistic and the practical:>)

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