Wednesday Workshop: Preparing a Public Reading


Wednesday Workshop
Preparing a Public Reading
21 March 2018

Preparation is all important. You cannot prepare enough.

First question: how long do you have? Your reading must be tailored to your time frame. Our local open mic sessions are composed of 3 minute slots. I choose poems or prose passages that can be read in 2 minutes to 2 and a half minutes. Time passes very quickly at the podium. Well-prepared, you will not over-run your time. Read your piece out loud and time it. If you can record it, do so. Listen to it as you read it. Do you feel comfortable with it? If so, go ahead with the reading. If you feel uncomfortable, or awkward, if you feel that the piece isn’t right, then choose another piece. Comfort is everything. Familiarity with reading the piece and with listening to your own voice will be of great comfort to you. You will step up there knowing you can do it, not wondering if you can do it.

Second question: are you familiar with the room and the mechanics of the room? If so, no problem. If not, take the time to visit the space in which you will read. Attend an earlier session. Visit one afternoon when nobody is there. It is easier to read in a familiar place than an unfamiliar one. Check out the room in advance. The mechanics are also important. How many will be in the audience? Will you need a microphone? Will you be expected to project your own natural speaking voice? Is there a podium? A reading table? Will you be sitting or standing?  Knowing this in advance reduces nerves and gives you practical answers and takes away both nerves and the fear of the unknown. Mechanics are important. Familiarize yourself with the mic. Is there an assistant to help? Think height and adjustment and remember, if you start your reading with necessary adjustments, this will take time out of your reading. Always leave that little extra space.

Third question: Is someone introducing you or are you expected to introduce yourself? If the former, your reading time will start when you start to speak. If the latter, your reading time will start when you start to speak. If you are doing your own introduction, then write it out in advance and read it out in advance. Treat it like a part of reading and include it in your reading time. Whatever you don’t, don’t start by explaining what you are going to read: this wastes time. Your work should speak for itself. If you are very confident, you can ad lib, but this takes precious time away from your reading space.  If you are not confident, then stick to your text, and plan and time your text in advance.

Fourth question: how will you choose your text? My suggestion is that you apply to your choice of text exactly the techniques that you use when writing and revising your text. (a) which chapter pleases you most? (b) you must feel joy: which sections give you the most joy? (c) which words, which sequences spark joy? I would also ask whether you want to read a single long text or a sequence of smaller texts. That is your choice. Again, comfort is the key word. If you are not comfortable reading out the F word in public, do not choose a passage that is filled with F words: your discomfort will transfer to the audience. Select a couple of passages, read them out loud, time them … then concentrate on one passage (longer) or a contrasting or complementary set of passages (shorter).

Example: Last Sunday, I was gifted a twenty minute reading slot. I chose six short pieces of prose that formed two distinct but complementary sequences. The total reading time was 17 mins and 30 secs. I was introduced, then read. I did some ad libs (I always do, sorry). I shuffled feet and pages. Total time of the videoed sequence 23 minutes, of which the intro, my slow arrival, and my initial sorting took about 3 mins. And yes, I was nervous. You could see my hands shaking and the pages waving up and down! I knew the audience, and I knew there was a possibility that young children might be present. They weren’t. So I read my F-word story … and yes, it’s full of F-words. I had another story, much gentler, in reserve. Just in case. If you are an experienced reader, you can respond to the audience and change at the last second. If you are not, stick to the plan.


weir 2

Apologia pro vita mea
(for Ana)

          Late last night, I opened Alistair Macleod’s book The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and I re-read the first story. I was soon dabbing my eyes with a tissue and blowing my nose.

This morning, I want to destroy everything I have written. I know I don’t possess the verbal and emotional genius of the great writers and I sense that I cannot write like them. Graduate school taught me to be passive, not active, and to write impersonally, choking every emotion when I write. Academia also taught me how to kiss and how to run away with my thirty silver pence. “Never challenge the status quo,” my professors told me. “Learn the rules and disobey them at your peril.”

But here, in this private space where I create and re-create, there are no rules. The enemy is not clear any more and the fight is not one of black against white. It is rather a choice between diminishing shades of grey, and all cats are grey in the gathering dark that storms against my closing mind. Should I destroy all my writing? I won’t be the first to do so; nor would I be the last. And I won’t be the first or the last to destroy myself either. Intellectual, academic, and creative suicide: as total as the suicide of the flesh.

I carry on my back the names of those who have gone on before me as if they were a pile of heavy stones packed into a rucksack that I carry up a steep hill, day after day, only to find myself, next morning, starting at the bottom once again. But this is not the point: the point is that if I cannot write like the great writers, how can I write?

I think of Mikhail Bakhtin and his cronotopos, man’s dialog with his time and his place. I have no roots, no memories, and that is where my stories must start: in the loss of self, the loss of place, the loss of everything. I was uprooted at an early age, soon lost my foundations, and only survival mattered.

I look at the first page of one of my manuscripts. My writing manifesto is clear before me: “And this is how I remember my childhood,” I read. “Flashes of fragmented memory frozen like those black and white publicity photos I saw as a child in the local cinema. If I hold the scene long enough in my mind, it flourishes and the figures speak and come back to life.”

I am aware of the words of T. S. Eliot that “every attempt / is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure / because one has only learnt to get the better of words / for the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which / one is no longer disposed to say it” (East Coker).

Are these stories an exercise in creativity or are they a remembrance of things past? How accurate is memory? Do we recall things just as they happened? Or do we weave new fancies? In other words, are my inner photographs real photographs or have they already been tinted and tainted by the heavy hand of creativity and falseness?

The truth is that I can no longer tell fact from fiction. Perhaps it was all a dream, a nightmare, rather, something that I just imagined. And perhaps every word of it is true.

I no longer know.

Herring Bones

IMG_0177 2

Herring Bones

Last winter, a heavy snowfall
toppled the garden wall.
Bricks and mortar now litter
the grass in untidy piles.

I take my child by an arm
and a leg and swing her round,
faster and faster till, dizzy,
she calls ‘no more’,
and I let her go.

She can hardly stand,
staggers like her grandfather
who lurches around the garden
leaning on a walking stick.

 He jabs at the red-brick wall
he wants me to rebuild
and claws,
with twisted fingers,
at words,
bricks laid
like herring bones
caught in his throat.

Tangled Garden


Tangled Garden

Forget-me-nots twine
intricate designs,
periwinkle fantasies
dancing between
green pods,
red flowers:
runner beans.

Every night,
I pull them apart
with clumsy fingers,
yet they knot again,
fresh each day,
like tangles
in my daughter’s hair.

Onions push through
a pride of trumpeting
They were all
just bulbs
last fall
when my mother
planted them.

The painting that introduces my poem is by my good fried Jane Tims, a multi-talented creative artist. Her poetry and art work can be found on her blog. Please take time to look at her work on New Brunswick’s Covered Bridges and the wonders of our local foods that are all Within Easy Reach.





All thumbs,
I can manage
two bunches,
one on each side.

But now,
with her mother gone,
it’s much more difficult
to part my daughter’s hair
neatly into three.

I work hard to perfect
that one thick plait
she loves down her back.

As for fish-bones
and French braiding…
she begs me to try

and I promise
that when my thumbs
turn into fingers,
I’ll give it a go.




This carving’s tame.
Children may sit
safely on its back.
They may stroke
the mighty muscles.

Its jaws are wedged in a grin.
Its red tongue hangs still.
No saliva drops from its chin.
Marble glass eyes.

Woodworm, like moth,
have left holes in its back.
More: many a crack
ensures its tameness.

Its shoulders hunch.
Sixteen claws
probe the concrete
museum floor.

Its nearer ear
bears small chips like
my grandmother’s tea-set.

There’s lots of room
for slips between cups
and this bear’s lips.

I can sense
death’s closeness
when I smell its breath.
I feel it move
beneath my hand.

I know you’re in there,
alive, alert, angry, hungry.

Cold sweat covers
my false, carved skin.




Portraits by Velásquez

 Velásquez sought asylum in Canada.
He set up his studio on the shore at Glace Bay.

He photographed short, stunted people
miners who worked underground
mining Cape Breton coal.

He waited while they shook or coughed,
had patience till they were still, then click.
When he had captured their spirits,
he blew up their photos to NHL size.

Slack jaws, puffy eyes:
“Man’s greatest sin
is having been born,”
one sighs.

Another seeks himself
through inner darkness.
He probes dark galleries
with Davy Lamps for eyes.
He finds no gold,
just seams of coal
that cling and clot his lungs.

Velásquez waits
for his cough to stop
and click he’s got him.
Sally Ann Second Hand clothes
lay siege to his tortured flesh.

“Life is a snap,”
Velásquez cries.
“And every photograph
a lie.”