Originally published in Martha Grover’s Somnambulist zine in the long, long ago. I do think these rules still apply though, even for zoom readings.
I co-host a reading series in San Francisco along with my friend, Crys Lehman, called One Lone Pear Tree. It takes place every fourth Thursday in our half-ache garden-backyard under our eponymous pear tree.
So far, the reading has been a great success and everything that we wanted it to be. This came about, in part, because Crys and I came up with some guidelines beforehand for what would make the reading successful. After getting our MFA’s in writing in San Francisco together and going to a ton of readings, we came to these conclusions.
In order to run a great reading:
1. Make sure your readers kick-ass.
This is the most vital element, which most readings fail at. Almost every reading I’ve been to is a mix of people who are so-so and people who blow me away. Rarely do I go to one where everyone is awesome. But if you can pull that off at your reading, then you’re really onto something. This means, in other words, don’t let your friends or lovers read unless they can really kill it. This also means soliciting work from people you know are good, and being OK with rejecting someone if you don’t think their work is up to snuff. Understand that a reading is a performance, and just because someone’s writing is wicked on paper doesn’t mean they can read it with verve. So if you haven’t heard them read before, or had someone one who’s opinion you trust heard them read, be hesitant. Only get people who can work the crowd and all the rest will fall into place.
2. Don’t have more than six readers.
Even six is pushing it, four is perfect. This is the second biggest mistake I see at reading series. Even writers don’t like to hear people read aloud for more than an hour. We want to get pumped up on the work and then talk about it. We’re all critics: we want to discuss, we want to praise people. We don’t want to have to wait two hours to tells someone we loved their work. The reading portion should be the main course – but don’t make it so filling that nobody has room for a salad before or a desert after!
3. Provide booze and food.
A reading should be an event. A party. Give people an additional reason to come besides the words. More importantly, give people something to do while they wait for the crowd to gather and your readers to arrive. And give them something to drink while they discuss the reading afterwards. At the very least, host it in a venue were people can buy drinks. Writers and their ilk are a thirsty bunch.
4. Have a unique venue.
Two of my favorite reading series in San Francisco are the Bernal Yoga series and the Word Performances series, in part because they’re in such cool spots. Bernal is in a huge airy yoga studio with great acoustics. There’s no mic, everyone sits in a circle. You have to take off your shoes and sit on mats while you listen to the poetry. Word Performances is at Veracocha, a faux-antique music store in the Mission. It has a wood-paneled basement with a peephole bar at the back and a stage decorated with artwork. It’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever been before. Anybody can have a reading in a coffee shop. Find a more memorable spot for it.
5. Don’t be too formal, don’t be totally informal.
Introduce your readers, give them specific amount of time to read. But don’t be hesitant to interact with them while they’re performing. Don’t prohibit the crowd from getting rowdy. Let the crowd be a part of the work, whether it’s pretending they’re bystanders in a story, to picking the next poem off a reader’s Ipad, to joshing or cheering the readers a little for their idiosyncrasies. Certainly, let the readers read, but if your crowd is doing nothing but clapping politely between acts, people aren’t enjoying themselves as much as they could.
6. Don’t freak out if nobody shows up.
This especially applies if it’s your first reading. Remember, readings always spread best by word of mouth. So the first one’s bound to be small. But if you provide booze and food somebody’s gotta show up – literati are know for their brokeness. Besides that, if you’ve got four readers, they’re going to bring a friend and a significant other, so that’s at least a huddle. And if that’s all you have, it’ll be more intimate and you’ll have less to clean up afterwards.
7. Run it with a partner.
Readings can be a shit-load of work. But if you can split that with someone, it makes it more fun. For mine, I do all the introducing and hosting at the party and Crys does all the Facebook/email posts. I spread word of the reading at parties, Crys spreads word via the interwebs. We split the solicitations and both read everything we receive. We split the food, booze, and firewood. This way it’s some work, but not to the point of wanting to not do it every month.