What to Expect if You Attend a Poetry Reading
Expect, of course, to hear poetry. Really famous poets like Billy Collins and Ted Kooser and Robert Pinsky usually get to read for an hour or more all by themselves, typically with a bit of patter in between poems. Many local readings have two or more people read as featured readers, sometimes but not always followed by an "open reading." More on the open reading later.
Featured readers are usually introduced by the host/emcee, and are welcomed to the podium with applause. Laughing at funny poems is not only allowed but encouraged. "Oohs" and "aahs" and "murmur-murmurs" are also permitted if the poet says something particularly clever or moving or enlightening. But no talking to neighbors and for Pete's sake, no cell phones. At the end of the poet's reading, applause is again in order.
About the open reading: it means just that; it's open to anyone who's interested in reading. Typically, anyone present can sign up when they get there and then share one or two original poems. Some places allow as many as three, but often it's a two-poem limit. If you've written some poems, you may want to take a few along to share, and then pick the one or two that you feel like reading at the time. People will clap when you're done, and some of them will probably come up to you and say nice things. Poets understand how hard the writing and sharing is, and tend to be a very welcoming, encouraging audience.
What to Do to Prepare for One
To prepare to be a featured reader:
As a starting point, you will usually be told for how long you're expected to read. Select enough poems to fill the time.
There's no fixed manner of deciding what to read. Perhaps you want to vet some new material. Maybe you want to choose a theme. Pick a few poems that you know are knock-outs (from prior readings). Be sure to open and close with strong selections.
Practice reading your poems aloud. Time each one individually and write its time on the bottom of the page.
Try to find a sensible order for things. If you're reading from a single-theme collection or body of work (as Minna and I did for part of our readings last night), group them together.
Be prepared to introduce some of your poems, or to explain a transition or inspiration — it makes for a smoother reading than saying "This next poem is called (insert poem title)" before every single poem.
You can always deduct from your folder, but it's very hard to add to it. And poems you've written and memorized should be printed and brought along anyhow, since memory sometimes decides to skiv off when you need it most.
To prepare for an open reading:
Print out a few poems and put them in a folder. A 10-cent paper folder will do, but really, it keeps your stuff together and it looks mildly polished. Not everyone will have a folder, though - some folks just turn up with a folded piece of paper. Take more than two poems; take three to five, at least. Why?
Well, then you can pick which poem(s) to share when you get there, as the spirit moves you. If three people have already read poems about armadillos, you may want to table your armadillo poem for another day. If, as in the reading I was at last night, Minna Duchovnay read a poem about Adam naming the animals and (as one of the poets for the open reading did) you have a poem about the creation of odd things like the kumquat, you might choose to share that naming poem as a tie-in.
General Tips for Reading Your Poetry in Public
Dan Maguire, who is a most excellent poet and public speaker, taught a poetry seminar two years back. Dan gave this helpful pointer about reading in public: When you're introduced, move to the poetry with alacrity. If possible, get there while folks are still clapping. (The more well-known you are, the longer and more heartily they will clap when you're introduced, but in all cases it's nice to arrive at the podium feeling welcomed by applause and not feeling like you've outlasted your welcome.)
The usual rules of public speaking apply. Make eye contact. Pace your reading. Project your voice (but for heaven's sake, don't bellow unless it's for effect; actually, the same goes for dropping your voice too low). An occasional hand gesture can be very effective, but only if it's thought out and sensibly done. You don't want to extend your arm only to not be quite sure what to do with it next.
If you get emotional over the content of one of your poems, take a breath and keep going. No need to apologize, either, unless you're simply falling apart in general and not just caught up in your text. If you've had an emotional moment while reading, pause after the conclusion of the poem, gather yourself together, take a deep breath and move on. If, however, it's the entire experience that has overwhelmed you, then when you reach the end of the poem, simply say "thank you," and sit down.
The benefits of reading poetry in front of a group: Most readings (featured or open) are not critiques, although sometimes people will make specific comments that can help you tweak something. More often, just reading it aloud to a group of people will make you notice your language in a way that you didn't when you read it at home, and you'll see places for tweaking on your own, as I did last night when I found an unnecessary "the" in a poem that I'd never ever noticed before; I had thought poem was as lean as it could be, but I was mistaken.
Another key benefit of reading in public is that you will feel like a "real" poet. And there's a sense of camaraderie among poets that is a good thing, just as there is (sometimes) a slight sense of competition as well. Whether the competition thing is good or bad can differ, but for most people, I think it's a positive. Value judgments as to the merits, value, or worth of certain poems are inevitable, and you can get a decent sense of where you stand in the immediate poetic hierarchy. Folks of all skill levels participate in open readings in particular, and you'll be part of a wide array of subject matter, use of language, form, and adroitness (in writing and speaking). There's something inspiring in hearing someone who completely blows you away and finding yourself to be less-skilled than that person in that poem, just as there is in hearing someone read something that you find to be pretty abominable, and knowing that you did better than that.
Local poetry groups abound throughout the country. Many can be found through postings at local bookstores and libraries. Some involve critique circles as well as readings. Finding one place to read poetry often assists you in finding many, many more, as poets tend to free-associate with more than one particular group, and tend to free associate with subsets of the poetic community in general. So whether you're looking to hear some poetry or to read it, getting to one reading, critique meeting or writing seminar will usually patch you into the local poetry grid.