Building Poetry Audiences in Libraries

Article excerpt

Organizing a poetry reading in New York City is one of life's easier tasks. You can put up a flag saying "Poets Wanted for Reading" or you can hold a reading and ask how many poets are in the audience. Once you know one poet or do one successful reading, other poets in the audience will approach you.

But getting an audience for a reading and keeping an audience that comes back for other readings is a much more elusive task. If you are fortunate enough to have a well-known poet, or one who teaches dedicated students or has a lot of friends, you may have a respectable audience in place. But what is your responsibility as the organizer and presenter?

At the very least, you or your public relations department, if you are fortunate enough to have one, should do a press release that can be sent to local newspapers. This can be as simple as who, what, where, and when.

Poetry is in the air

Flyers have been an important component for Poetry in the Branches here at the New York Public Library. We designed a prototype at the beginning of the series with Poets House (our cosponsor) and NYPL logos and large, clear print on neon paper. We used the same paper to create signs for the front door. "Poetry is in the air, catch it here," read one that we ran down our long narrow door panel. The scroll concluded with the date, time, and poet's name. The neon paper and large type font made it possible for the sign to be seen even from passing cars.

Another important feature on the back of each flyer was the placement of a poem by the featured poet. When staff members went out onto the busy streets to distribute flyers, they could say, "Would you like a free poem?" You can do the same thing inside the library. Flyers can be placed with poetry book displays as an important component in raising awareness of the presence of your poetry collection.

If you go out to visit your board or attend other community meetings, take flyers and mention your programs. Cultivate a relationship with local merchants and bookstores who may post your flyers in their windows. If you have a local cable station, see if they will announce your programs or let you talk about them.

There are other elements in creating a poetry series that will encourage people to return. One is obvious: serve refreshments. In New York City, sadly, we do not advertise that we do this, however.

For me the most important element is the program itself and how it is hosted and presented. The public likes to be able to identify a face connected with the library. A series is often best curated by one individual who can provide a good ear to balance voices in programs with more than one poet and to provide an appropriate variety or diversity for the series as a whole. When the audience comes to trust your judgment in selecting writers to read, they will be more willing to take the leap that is required to come out to hear someone whose name or work they do not know.

I have also found it useful to use the introduction time as an opportunity to establish a relationship with the audience. …