Making a set list for readings is something every writer has to do, and if you do a lot of readings, as I do, it’s important to try to get it right. I remember going to one open mic event, in the early days of my reading career, with a batch of beautifully crafted nature poems, only to hear previous readers belting out highly political poems, and getting great audience responses. So, it’s that kind of session, I realised, frantically ditching my initial selection, and digging out more appropriate poems.
The set list has to be appropriate to the expected audience, but there’s no reason why you can’t mix things up a bit, read things the other poets aren’t going to cover. You can do this – your voice is different from theirs.
Probably the most important factor in building a set is the timing. I have to know how long I’ve got, to avoid any chance of over-running. It’s not fair to fellow readers, the organisers, or the audience, to run over your allotted time. So I always rehearse my timings beforehand. Better to leave an audience wanting just a little bit more, so I allow maybe 9 minutes for a 10-minute slot, 14 for a 15-minute one. It also helps me to relax a bit as a reader. I’ve seen nervous poets with less experience rush their readings, trying to cram too many poems into a set, gabbling their words and making them unintelligible to an audience as a result.
I always put in a couple of spares, just in case I need them. It might be that I can tell from audience reaction that a particular type or style of poem is going down better or less well than others, so I try to have a couple of alternatives that will fit the set better.
I’ve written before about introductions, about keeping them short and to the point. I’ve been at readings where I’ve listened to poets rambling on with unnecessary introductions and I’ve said, under my breath, ‘Get on with it!’ I think maybe once or twice I’ve said it audibly. All right, sometimes you need one, but most times you don’t. Let the poems speak for themselves.
Above all, I try to ensure that the readings will be enjoyable experiences for the audience members. If they’re enjoying it, so will you.