Try This at Home: Tips to Starting Your Own Reading Series

March 3, 2015 § 8 Comments

A guest post by V. Hansmann:

V. Hansman

V. Hansmann

Vladimir Nabokov suggests a writer’s imagination transforms him into a storyteller, a teacher, or an enchanter and the best practitioners embody all three. One element the three roles share is in the speaking. Reading in front of people can feel onerous at best and potentially fatal at worst. Performance anxiety is the iceberg tip.

At every MFA residency I claimed my four minutes at the Student Readings and we held some impromptu readings in the common rooms of the dorms, but nothing prepared me for the concentrated attention aimed at me by my peers.

I kinda liked it. It didn’t feel so bad to have an audience, to display the ideas I had painstakingly assembled. To communicate directly. When could I do it again? What if I took this feeling on the road? How about a reading series in my hometown, New York City? In Greenwich Village? In a smoky basement bar?

I graduated in June of 2011 and in late August, I hosted the first of what has become a monthly series at the Cornelia Street Café. There are no cigarettes. I miss that, because the basement room at Cornelia Street truly is a throwback to the days when the Village was the Village.

I started the reading series with no experience, but I’m a middle-aged guy with the commensurate amount of common sense. Here are some points you would be well served to consider if you wish to start your own reading series.

This is not a step-by-step guide.

  • Suss out the spoken word scene in your neighborhood, town, or city
  • Investigate promising venues – online, in person, word-of-mouth
  • Address these questions –

1)  Where would you draw your readers from?

2)  How much are you willing to put into the effort? Time, Money, Goodwill

3)  What frequency? Monthly, bimonthly, quarterly, random

4)  Format – How much time will the venue give you? How much is useable? For example, if you have a two-hour slot, only ninety minutes of that may be useable, between waiting for stragglers and allowing time for the next event to load in. How many readers? For example: Featured Reader & three readers with unequal time, or four / five readers with the same allotment?

5)  Perhaps most important – Am I temperamentally suited to this?

  • If you’re an MFA grad and the answer to #1 is your alma mater, then/li>

1) Consider students, graduates, faculty, staff, and friends as potential readers

2) Plot out a Zone your readers can get to and fro easily (without an overnight)

3) Ask the program for a list of students/graduates within that radius

  • Useful Zone Lists for curating purposes

-MFA Master List: You build this from the list the program sends and student directories

-MFA Genre List & MFA Class List: You build these from the first list

  •  Promotion

-Introduce yourself and the project to your MFA Master List

-Send regular upcoming reading announcements to this list

-Email blast – MFAs in Zone, un-MFA writers in Zone

-FaceBook – make a page

-Poets &Writers online Calendar

-Personal or series website

-Connect with the powers that be at the MFA program

-Pursue any free event listing anywhere

-Include a reference to reading series in your bio

  •   The Reading Itself

-Start time – ten minutes after posted start

-Printed program and/or oral intros – your choice

-Break after the first three readers – length up to host

-After-party – your choice

-Death by conviviality

-Good for book signing

 Exemplum Gratis

This month’s reading had been lined up for ages. Then, not that long ago, a fellow grad wrote me, saying in effect – I’m flying in and would love read on the 23rd of February. What could I say but ‘yes’? Now, I would have to shoehorn an additional fifteen minutes into the format. Ack. I fretted. Experience has taught me that evenings tend to run short and not long. So, based on that assessment, I procrastinated. One solution might be to fix – “Hey, listen, everybody needs to lose five minutes from the piece they’ll be reading.” Another might be to simply wait – And this morning, one of the other readers withdrew, restoring equilibrium to the evening.

The lesson, I guess, is to trust in the cosmos. Husbanding my equanimity has been my greatest resource in this cat-herding enterprise.
V. Hansmann was raised in suburban New Jersey; growing up to be neurotic, alcoholic, homosexual, and old. His publishing credits consist of an anecdote in the The New York Times, essays in The Common online, BLOOM, Post Road, and Best Travel Writing, Vol. 10, as well as poems in Structo and Subtropics.


§ 8 Responses to Try This at Home: Tips to Starting Your Own Reading Series

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Start on time and keep the reading to 45 minutes without a break. Be clear with each reader about how much time each has—including introduction, chatting, and reading. Make clear there will be a clock, someone keeping the time and that a reader who goes on too long will be embarrassed. Insist that each person has rehearsed and timed their reading and intro. Make sure the person who gives these instructions is scarier than the readers’ egos.

    I have participated in and attended readings of all sorts. People leave after their friend reads if there is a break. People without a clock tend to read too long. There are few things more irritating than readers who abuse their audience.

    Plan what you will say to introduce your work so that you do not waste half your “reading” on chit-chat. What does the audience actually need to know to follow the excerpt you plan to read?

    Read material that has been thoroughly edited, not something “brilliant” drafted the night before. It’s not brilliant yet.

    Read material you have rehearsed aloud because reading in our head is not the same as reading to an audience.

    Do not read the story you have sent out fifty times without a journal accepting it. There is probably a reason.

    Do not invite someone up to the podium to read who is not on the schedule.

    Do not read “just a bit more” because no one is impolite enough to yell at you to stop.

    At one abusive reading the reader shared something he had written just the night before and went on reading for a half hour past time. It was so awful I began reading a book in my bag. The writer sitting behind me in the audience began reading my book over my shoulder.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    And your idea is brilliant—sorry I went right off in my own direction without crediting your proposal. Thank you for encouraging us all to share.

  • Ruth Crocker says:

    Thank you V, for your wonderful contribution to human kind by creating the Bennington Reading series. I have loved getting myself into New York City and reading for this very enthusiastic crowd. Bravo, Bravo

  • Joanne Yeck says:

    Well done. Well said.

  • I’ve heard only great things about V’s reading series, and hope to get there. In Boston, we’re doing things a bit differently, with one author reading and then Q&A with the audience. We do it at home (my house and another’s), and our authors range from well-known to just-published. But V’s piece had some tips I can incorporate into our series, and thanks for writing. If you live in the Boston area and want to join our mailing list, send an email to

  • I have a little gruop of people that enjoy having a good time reding and sharing their literature.
    I stared sharing this idea by email, radio, tv and friend to friend. Someone donate the place (Perfect place a cultural center in down town)
    Simple rule, “respect time”
    Meetings once a month
    Im the one that take coffe and cookies to share some time talking after our reading, and im the one who send the reminder a day before the meeting just to be sure nobody forgot the date.
    This was my dream, i learn a lot from them, by listening their stories and poems, everything. I feel ver happy when i spend time with them.

  • […] you have any inclination to start a reading series, you’ll want to read V. Hangman’s how-to post on the Brevity […]

  • […] the local scene in your area is underwhelming, consider giving it a nudge: An open-mic night, a reading by members of your writing group. My city, Berlin, is home to a lot […]

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