15 Ways To Create Great Poetry Shows

I love running a poetry show, and that passion is infectious. I’m regularly asked about what it takes to put on a successful poetry show, and after 18 years of organizing locally and nationally, I would hope I have something to offer. In an attempt to answer some of the more frequent questions, here’s a list of things to think about whether you’re just starting out or you’ve been running a show for a while.

The Green Mill, Chicago, IL.
The Green Mill, Chicago, IL.

1) Know the value system of your show.
Most shows look like simple open mics: you sign up, you read a poem or two, you sit down and clap for the next poet. But every show has a set of values it uses to not only get people in the door, but to determine how the show will be run. Most organizers don’t call it this or speak about it much out loud, but that system exists. It usually plays out in response to something that grates against the value system, but by then it’s too late to address. Now you have to FIX it. Think about what your show’s values are – its goals, its boundaries, how it defines success – and make those things as clear as you can without making people feel like they’re in a science fair project. If people wanted to be part of a social experiment they’d stay home and get prodded quietly on Facebook for free.

2) Do you.
Create the show you want to see, not just the show you think an audience will come to. Most audiences don’t know what they’ll be engaged by until it’s engaging them. Now, if you, over time, want to do a different show than people want to see, that says more about you than it does your potential audience, since your potential audience doesn’t know your show exists yet. Doesn’t mean you’re wrong – you like what you like – but you may want to think about what you want to see if that keeps happening to you over a long period of time and the bar is looking at you like, “You wanted me to turn off the jukebox and television for THIS?!” You will be rewarded for your honesty on this count, either by successful shows or with the knowledge that no one wants to see what you want to see.

3) Define success very clearly.
Be clear about what you consider a successful show: attendance, covering the bar, X number of people on the list each week, whatever. This is something a lot of organizers try to apply retroactively after a show is done. And while you should review what you’ve done, your success should be a goal, not an accident. If you think you’re winning with a 10-person audience, congratulations. But be honest and clear about what success means to you. Also, be clear on what success means to you versus your venue. If your ideas about success don’t line up, you’ve got some tough conversations coming. When I put on a show I ask a venue what they want, and I make them be clear about that. Then I hit that mark or find a venue that hits my mark instead.

The Nuyorican Poets cafe, NY, NY
The Nuyorican Poets Cafe, NY, NY

4) Don’t fail down. Build up.
People tend to plan big and fail downward, banking on a percentage of people they’ve invited or, failing that, crying. A better idea is to build up from something smaller that actually works, and that looks successful and exciting. Better to pack a small venue with 25 people (with all the energy and optics that generates) than to take the same 25 people to a venue that seats 100 people and look like a failure. I’ve had some great venues in my day, but I hadn’t hit my audience’s critical mass yet, so the great venues failed.

5) Always be giving value.
I give you $5 worth of show whether you like a single poem or not. If you happen to like the poetry as well then you’re walking away with more than I am out of that deal, and that’s a win/win. But I’m going to emcee the skin off your face no matter what, thus imbuing my values with value.

Tourettes Without Regrets, Oakland, CA.
Tourettes Without Regrets, Oakland, CA.

6) Kill your cliques.
If you want to hang out with your friends, don’t start a show. Start a writing group or a social event. But don’t pretend to be putting on a show about wide-open, free range art welcome to all and then make it feel like high school all over again. Every scene has artists that are good, a smaller ratio of them even have great artists. But a clique is a shitty way to make yourself feel good because it usually comes at someone else’s expense. Again, if you want to be in an art gang, start a collective. You can even use your regular open show to feed such a mission. But don’t treat something that purports to be open like your private party. If your gang is legit, you won’t need to rub anyone’s nose in how cool it is. FYI: with social media’s popularity this dynamic has gone digital, so be on guard on that front.

7) Diversify your bonds: Part 1
Mix up what your show does. Add features, or take them away and focus on your regulars. Have a slam, but make it weird. Invite a house band to play along for a night. Use themes. Encourage cover readings. While most people who come out to poetry shows just want to get on the mic, if you have some non-poet audience (that is a goal, right?) they will appreciate the change of pace.
Also: try do this in a way that’s as original as possible. Taking someone’s old idea and putting your name on it can seem to work, but ultimately a borrowed or stolen idea can only grow so much, and really: do you want to be that cat?

8) Diversify your bonds: Part 2
Don’t try to make your show be all things. There’s nothing wrong with having your regular show and creating another side show to feed a different mission, or to enhance the brand of your regular show. But if people can’t get a handle on what your regular show does because one week it’s a comedy show and the next week it’s the Algonquin Round Table, they’ll only come until you do something they don’t like. Then they’re gone.

Da Poetry Lounge, Los Angeles, CA.
Da Poetry Lounge, Los Angeles, CA.

9) Know Why People Are Coming Out.
Pay attention to what people are coming out for. This does not mean to YOUR show, but OUT OF THE HOUSE. Think about what drives people to turn down everything else they could be doing with their time to come see a poetry show in the middle of the week. Did they want to kill time before going to a real bar? Are they just supporting a poet friend? Did they read about you in a local arts rag and think “Well, that’s different”? Or do you have a real poetaster on your hands? Work to uncover what that motivation is and consider how that plays into what you offer.
Also, here’s a dirty little secret about poetry audiences: they all want to be entertained. They may define that differently, but it’s art, not a math lecture. The stodgiest academic reading is still providing an entertainment for its intended audience. It may not look as entertaining as a show that has burlesque or that has a jazz band in the back, but don’t be fooled: everybody’s looking for a good time.

10) Poets Aren’t Yours.
You have no poets. You have a microphone and a sign-up list. Poets decide to come to your show or they do not decide to come to your show. When your show doesn’t give them what they want, they’ll either a) stop doing poetry or b) go somewhere else to do poetry. As long as your show is doing what it should be doing, that’s not a mark against you, and you can’t process their decision that way. If a black poet wants to read in front of black people and you have a bunch of white people, that’s a poet who should move on. That doesn’t mean you should try to get more black people so you don’t lose poet X. (You SHOULD try to get more black people in your audience, but not because of some random poet. You do it so you aren’t bleeding something useful, like diversity, or whatever the beef is. Assuming you care. You racist.)

11) Be there for the people who are there.
People see my show and they think it’s awesome, but they think it was always like that and it wasn’t. As of this writing, the Writers’ Block Poetry Night is 18 years old. More than half of those years were a wash financially, and sometimes artistically. We went through a lot of venues before our current long-standing success story with Kafe Kerouac. There were nights when 10 people showed up…or less. Any way that goes, those ten people (or less) deserve the best show you can possibly put on.

The Writers' Block Poetry Night, Columbus, OH.
The Writers’ Block Poetry Night, Columbus, OH.

12) Respect people’s time.
Start on time. End at a reasonable hour. Don’t spend a lot of show time on things that don’t feed people’s reasons for coming out. I know: I break these rules sometimes. But I’m like a jazz musician: I know what the rules are so I know WHEN to break them in the interest of a larger payoff, say, a particularly ratchet moment that people will talk about for the rest of the year that makes my show must-see. Big difference between that and just being a low budget host with no quality control.

13) Keep your crew small.
You don’t need ten people to run a poetry show, so if you’re letting in a bunch of your friends in for free because they might do something if you happen to ask them, you’re being taken advantage of. People come in early every week to help move the furniture in my venue, sometimes before I get there. And they still pay because they believe in supporting the show. Supporting the show doesn’t mean sitting in the back for free being cool with the host. It means putting in real work in lieu of giving up real resources because you share that show’s values.

Vancouver Poetry Slam, Canada.
Vancouver Poetry Slam, Canada.

14) Know when you’re low budget.
Nothing wrong with having grand ideas or wanting to go big. But when you put on show after show and people don’t come – or worse, if they come and then never come back – you’re doing something wrong. If your community isn’t responding to your slam or your writing contests or your offers for workshops, they either don’t know or they’re not interested. It’s 2015, yo. If you have 500 local friends on Facebook and you post publicly about your shows, trust that they know. They’re making a decision not to come. You need to reset your life. And honestly? Some of us aren’t cut out for the vision part of the show. Some of us make better emcees or anchor poets than visionaries. But trust that every show needs vision. Know when vision isn’t your strength.

15) Don’t try to guilt trip your audience.
There is no shortage of organizers who make a great show of calling out their communities for not supporting their mics. Guess what: people don’t like being scolded because they didn’t spend their time and money on what you wanted them to. The three biggest problems with these tantrums are a) you’re not six, b) it doesn’t work, and c) it doesn’t account for the possibility that the problem might be you or your show.

Good luck, organizers. Great poetry shows await you!

(Aside: I know I say poetry shows a lot here. Almost all of this works for ANY type of art event, obviously, but only the poets ask me for advice, so it’s “for” them.)

3 thoughts on “15 Ways To Create Great Poetry Shows

  1. So helpful ! Thanks . Trying to start a slam in my community that has no real place to go for poets hoping for success !

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