Eric Gregory winning poet James Brookes reading at The Shuffle
Amy Key, Artistic Director of monthly poetry event, The Shuffle, talks you through setting up your own poetry night. She also asks other poets and poetry event organisers for their tips and advice.
I’ve co-organised and hosted poetry readings under ‘The Shuffle’ banner for going on four years. It’s a monthly poetry reading series, with the aim of promoting a variety of readers, with the emphasis on less-established writers.
It’s been one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve had. Sometimes it feels like hard work, sometimes it even feels a little bit scary, but I’ve been constantly amazed by how supportive poets (yes, even the famous ones!), the audience and fellow gig promoters have been. With a bit of enthusiasm putting on a gig is far easier than you might think. Here, I’m going to try and take you through, step-by-step, how to set-up a poetry gig that not only an audience will enjoy, but you too.
It can be easy to get lost without knowing where you want to go.
It’s easy to rush into booking poets and finding a venue without asking yourself: what am I doing, and why? Before we got started on The Shuffle we met to agree what ‘we’ were about. We saw a gap for a non-thematic or age-group specific reading series in London. We liked the idea of The Shuffle being like a random playlist of our favourite songs, something for everyone to enjoy and hopefully a way to help introduce new poets to an audience.
I’d suggest that before diving in with all the action you do the same, so you have some guiding principles to help you decide who you want to invite to perform their poetry, where you should be promoting it, where to host the event etc.
Imagine yourself as a member of the audience.
You now need to decide how the event will run. Think from the audience’s point of view. How long is will the event last? How many poets? How long will each poet get? Who will host? Will there be a break?
My experience is that the format you come up with here is crucial to a successful event. I spoke to a number of event organisers and they were unanimous about one thing: attention span. Less is definitely more in poetry terms. Aim for slots of no longer than 12 minutes, preferably less. When a poet asks you ‘have I got time for one more’ they usually haven’t…Don’t try to cram too much in. Ensure the host doesn’t waffle. It’s easy to lose your audience because you’ve not thought about the structure of your event.
You need to find and book the venue. It’s much easier to get a free or cheap venue than you might think. Some are sublime (V&A museum anyone?) some are ridiculous (packed commuter train?) but many are suitable. Ideas include: bookshop, library, local cafe or bar and community centres. In general, I’d say it’s best to have a venue that is only open to attendees of the reading itself to prevent any distractions or disruptions. But being a romantic, I’d suggest also trying other things. What about that lovely old bandstand in the summer? Or a graveyard for a Halloween-themed reading? Try to find a venue that matches the spirit of your events! Once you’ve found your venue either book it or get permission to hold your event there, and consider how you’ll need the space set out and what equipment you might need. Write all this down so you can check on it later.
Choosing and approaching the poets you want to read
This is what it’s all about. My experience is that poets are not a timid bunch, and most will jump at the chance to share their work (even if they get nervous about performing!). This goes for established poets too. Nearly all the ‘big’ poets I’ve asked to take part in events have said yes, even when I’ve been unable to pay them, in which case I’ve made the case for ‘what’s in it for them’.
Some general tips. When you invite the poet, explain what your event is all about and why you’d like them to take part. Flattery, being careful to avoid fawning, is very powerful and you should make an effort to research the poet’s background so you or the host can introduce them properly. Get all the practical details straight: when and where the gig is, how long their set will be, who else is reading, if and when they will be paid, whether they can sell books or not. This not only helps to avoid awkward situations later in the day but builds confidence in you as a promoter. Showing you’re organised usually makes the poet up their game too.
Promotion, or there’s no point making a delicious meal if no-one eats it.
I won’t pretend it’s not possible to enjoy gigs with a very small, intimate audience. In fact, I’ve sometimes enjoyed them more than the packed-to-the-rafters shows. But you do owe it to your poets to provide an audience for their work. It’s really depressing when you have a cracking line-up who read beautifully and there’s hardly anyone there to hear them.
There are lots of simple things you can do, but you need to do it in advance, particularly in towns/cities where you have lots of competition (I could attend a poetry event every night of the week in London, sometimes more than one a night). Ideally you will: create a Facebook event and send invitations 4-6 weeks in advance; send details to major listings magazines and websites; create a flyer that you can post online or stick in cafes and venues; ask the venue to post on their website; tweet; share details with writing groups/workshops and most importantly tell people about it face-to-face.
That’s not to say I think it’s all down to the promoter. Encourage your poets to invite people along. Provide them with any publicity material and suggest they send out Facebook invites to their friends.
A word of caution, if you’re using Facebook, Twitter etc, be careful not to overexpose or ‘cross post’ the event. When I received four messages about the same event on one day, I was so annoyed that I left the promoting (and offending) group.
Thank-you and goodnight
To be honest, a lot of my on-the-day nerves come down to what I’m going to wear, but I’m assuming you’re less frivolous. On the day of the event make sure you get to the venue early, having checked for any last minute messages from those taking part. See that the room or space is properly laid out, that the mic works, that you know where the toilets and fire exits are. If there are a number of you organising or hosting the event, make sure you have ten minutes to run through who’s doing what – collecting money, making introductions, handling the mic etc. This will help the event run smoothly
Someone should be on hand to welcome your poets and to say hello as guest arrive. Ensure each poet knows their position in the running order and restate how long they have. This is your opportunity to ensure they haven’t prepared too much material – I’d always urge my poets to knock one poem off their list as almost everyone misjudges how long their set is! If you’re paying them, let them know when and explain where they can put out any books they may have for sale.
Once you’ve got started, use the breaks to ask people if they’re enjoying the event and make sure you thank the poets there and then. You can help to create a warm and appreciative atmosphere for the gig which others will adopt.
When you close the event, remember to thank all the poets and the audience. This is also your opportunity to promote any forthcoming events – something I often forget to do, but which works well.
You don’t usually get a dress rehearsal for your first poetry gig, so approach the event as an (enjoyable) learning experience. Once you’re done, spend some time reflecting what went well or less well and make any tweaks you need to – the venue, the format, the hosting etc – for next time. Write to thank the poets and ask them for any feedback. Don’t be frightened – often things you felt didn’t work, others didn’t notice! Most importantly, enjoy it. I love the adrenalin of seeing the event come together, but more than that, hearing quite often brilliant live poetry.
Amy Key’s pamphlet Instead of Stars is published by Tall Lighthouse. Her work has been published in magazines and various anthologies, most recently in Birdbook (Sidekick Books). She hosts The Shuffle in partnership with the poets Gale Burns and Jacqueline Saphra. She enjoys collecting clutter.
Gig planning checklist
4-6 weeks in advance
- Book and confirm venue
- Book poets
- Prepare publicity material and start promoting
1 week before the reading
- Reconfirm venue
- Remind your poets and provide any extra detail
- Check attendee numbers – do you need to do any last minute promotion?
- Work out how you’ll introduce the poets and prepare for hosting
On the day
- If you’re charging, get some change for the ‘float’
- Check for any last minute messages from poets, find stand-ins if needed
- Get to the venue early, set-up room and check equipment
Poetry gigs in universities
I spoke to Rowena Knight about her experience of putting on gigs at Durham University.
I asked Rowena how she got started: “My first step was to create a university Poetry Society. I met someone who had thought of doing it, and I was so excited by the idea I insisted on getting involved. Once we had the society up and running I had an executive group to help organise the events, some of whom were English students who already had an idea of how poetry gigs were organised and of the support we could get from the English department.”
When Rowena got started there wasn’t much of a poetry scene, but it didn’t stay that way: “Once the society was established I was very surprised by how many people were interested in joining, going to gigs and performing themselves. I think a lot of students find the idea of poetry interesting, but don’t think to start something themselves. Once you give them a foundation to work from, you’ll find a significant amount of interest.”
I asked Rowena about how she promoted the event across the University: “We largely promoted our events via e-mail using our own lists plus lists from the English and Creative Writing Societies. So long as you offer to promote their events in return, most societies will be happy to promote yours. Our exec members also made announcements at the beginning of English lectures informing people of gigs.”
Rowena five top tips for people wanting to set up an events at university or college:
1. Explore your options. There is a lot of support out there if you’re willing to look for it. If you need a venue or funding for an event, try your uni’s English Department, your student union, bars…it’s always worth a try. If there’s a particular poet you’d like to perform at your event, get in touch with their publisher and see if they’d be interested; most poets will be happy to read for free so long as you can offer to pay their travel and accommodation.
2. Be organised. Make sure you have a line-up of poets and that they know when they’re performing and they’re happy with it. Tell your poets how long they can perform for – try to make sure they don’t perform for too much or too little time (5-10 minutes is a good amount of time for one person). Turn up to the venue half an hour early to make sure everything is organised. Don’t rely on outside help – if the venue owners tell you they’ll set up the seats/provide food and drink/provide a microphone, they will probably forget (I know this from bitter experience!).
3. Don’t be afraid to interrupt a poet to ask them (politely) to speak up or finish up their set.
4. Don’t charge entry, unless you really need to, in which case don’t charge more than £2. An entry fee will really put cash-strapped students off attending.
5. Most importantly, relax and try not to take it too seriously.
I asked Rowena what she got out of her experience “it’s been one of the most frustrating and rewarding aspects of university life. It can be ridiculously complex to organise a reading – much more complex than you would think from the perspective of an audience member – but once you’ve pulled it off and you have happy poets and audience members, it is definitely worthwhile.”
Rowena won a commendation in the Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award in 2006. Her poetry has been widely published online and in magazines including Pomegranate. She set up the Poetry Society at Durham University. She graduated in 2010. You can read her work here.
Photo: Andrew Parkes
I spoke to Rachael Allen, from the Clinic collective about her experiences: “Clinic is about promoting new writing and art that we love. We promote and host events, commission new work, run workshops and we’ve even realised a CD.”
We organised our first event to raise money for a trip to Edinburgh. It was such a success we realised we had a real opportunity to promote new writers, particularly to the students at Goldsmiths (where we were studying) and in New Cross, where we lived.”
One of the special things about Clinic is that it’s not limited to poetry. If you go to one of their events there’s art, music, zine-making workshops.
As Rachael told me, “the art side of things came very naturally when we made our first zine and Sean Parker came on board. He has a brilliant aesthetic that I was totally oblivious too, which brings with it a whole new audience and group of people who we’ve been lucky enough to work with and learn from. The music side was also quite a natural thing because we all have a really similar taste in music and figured that mixing poetry with a gig would be pretty different”.
On promotion, Rachael’s a big fan of word of mouth – “it’s so great when you see someone come along who’s just heard about it from someone else” – but also uses flyers, posters and sends a press release to event listings editors. For me, Clinic’s magic formula is passion and enthusiasm. As Rachael explains “we’re constantly excited. When we find a poet we love, or even if we read a new poem from a poet we love, we get ridiculously geeky and read lines from poems we love to each over the phone.” Her top piece of advice? “Believe in the poets you’re putting on.”
Rachael Allen is one of the organisers of poetry and music collective Clinic Presents, who organise “London’s sickest poetry nights” (Dazed & Confused). Rachael’s poems have been published in The Cadaverine and she is one of the poets to be featured in The Salt Book of Younger Poets.
What about running an open mic night? At these events, poets are invited to sign-up to perform before the event starts, with a set number of places available These can be a great opportunity to hear new poets or to try out new poems on an audience. Poet and promoter Niall O’Sullivan hosts the long-running Poetry Unplugged, the weekly open mic at London’s Poetry Cafe.
“I’ve been hosting the night since 2005. It was started by the poet and host John Citizen, he basically saw a niche and went for it. Most of the events at the Cafe at the time were quiet mannered affairs, so Unplugged was the first real attempt to bring a more public oriented live literature culture to the venue.”
I asked Niall what he enjoys most about hosting the events, “it’s the people-watching properties. The poems may not always be Nobel Prize winners but they can often connect with an audience in a way that the established poetry scene cannot. We’ve had survivors of terrorist attacks, ex-cons from every prison you can think of (including Broadmoor), city workers, council workers, pop stars and homeless people turn up to share their poems. If you keep the format as open as possible you can bring in a true cross-section of society and avoid the cliqueishness that forms at other venues.”
Running an open mic can mean less control for the host than other poetry events. Niall has some advice to keep things sane: “Treat everyone equally. The worst open mics are the ones where the promoter lets their friends read for about twenty minutes each and then tells the remaining poets that they only have a minute later on in the evening. Limit spots by time limit and not by the amount of poems. Be consistent and fair, if you can’t cut someone off when they run over, whether they’re bigger than you or a crowd favourite, then don’t run an open mic. As soon as you let some people read for longer because they’re “better”, then you are letting everyone else know that they’re worse.”
Photo: Jacob Sam La Rose
As a veteran host, he also has some great advice for the MC: “they should be charismatic, but they should also know when to keep their ego in check and fade into the background. Never waffle for more than a minute between poets. Get acquainted with the microphone and the mic stand. The biggest rookie mistake I see from first time organisers is that they don’t adjust the mic stand for each poet.”
If you’re using a licensed venue he also suggests that you “make sure that your audience get plenty of drinking time, or you’ll find the venue to be less sympathetic pretty quickly.”
Niall O’Sullivan is a poet, editor and event host. He has published two books of poetry with Flipped Eye and hosts London’s biggest open mic, Poetry Unplugged, at the Poetry Cafe.
Selected Poems at the V&A Reading Rooms
“There was so much to consider! The venue had to have the right atmosphere and would attract members of the public. To counteract that, how do I present the night so that it still gives the die-hard poetry fans enough to enjoy the event? Also, how would I change the line-up each month and keep it fresh, whilst still trying to bring in more headline readers of the poetry world.”
I was keen to discover how Alex managed to nab the beautiful surroundings of one of my favourite museums, the Victoria & Albert. He explains: “I got talking to the V&A’s events and branding team over Twitter about starting a regular poetry night there. They asked me to come and have a meeting with them and I put a proposal together. They liked what I suggested and commissioned me to curate some nights.”
Alex thinks the key to success is self-confidence, “If you think you have a good idea to present to an establishment, you should not be shy in approaching them. You have to think about what you are offering them as much as what they can offer you.”
On promotion, Alex was keen to establish a visual identity early on. He commissioned a designer he knew via mutual friends to create a poster to promote the event and then used the imagery on Twitter, Facebook and his own blog. He also encouraged the readers he invited to play their part in promoting the event through their own social networks.
His advice for wannabe organisers is to “go to lots of poetry events, at each end of the spectrum, whether it’s Seamus Heaney giving a reading or a community-based writing group. You will always find something that will shape the way you will think about your event.”
“Overall, the most important thing is to be passionate about what you do, its infectious.”
Alex MacDonald was born in Essex in 1986 and currently lives and works inLondon. He ran the blog Selected Poems and runs the monthly night ‘Selected Poems at the V&A Reading Rooms’ which champions independent poetry publications.
Photo: Dartmoor Arts Project