But, the biggest thing I worry about at times like these is what to read to an audience who's not entirely familiar with my work or has really even heard of me. When you publish a new book of poems, you're supposed to "push" it for two years. My first collection was published in 2010 and many of the poems were already several years old when it came out. And How Swallowtails came out the next year, so my shelf-life for that material for me, anyway, has almost worn out its welcome in terms of my regular circuit of readings. I keep the magic alive by thinking of new ways to combine the poems into fresh conversations, but I've been working on a new manuscript, so I'm much more interested in and excited about building an audience for the new material.
That said, having had the benefit of touring so often with poetry veterans, I've learned to just sort of do the math and mix it up. I'll probably have anywhere from 15-20 minutes at the mic with a new audience who I'm going to assume have a limited knowledge of my work. The idea here is that even my old work is new to someone else. So, I should probably go about picking material that best represents my aesthetic and interests (some might call them obsessions). I'll probably read two pieces from my first book, two from my second, and two brand new pieces that are not available anywhere...yet. The question is, of course, always, which ones?
This is my suggestion for people facing a similar pickle. Print out, or label, or send to your e-reader, up to double the number of pieces you're supposed to read that represents a cross-section of all the material. Always limit yourself to double because anymore and you might as well bring the whole darn filing cabinet, right? So, tomorrow, I'll bring around 10-12 poems to choose from. When in doubt, I go with the tried and true with one or two risky pieces thrown in to keep it exciting for me, even if the audience can't tell which is which!
For instances like these, I prefer the hard-copy option because of ye aulde first impression adage. Anything can go wonky with a device but if you print out your material or have your piece or excerpt readily labeled in your book, you're pretty much golden. Also, shuffling order is easier on-the-spot that way. You're going to most likely choose your order right when you show up at the reading and get a sense of not only the venue, but the crowd.
It's hard to explain, but I don't advocate being completely wedded to a line-up or order of poems before a reading. Leave a little wiggle room for instinct. There are some times where I've read and just felt a certain kind of way about work that not many people have picked up on or I may never had read before...may not even be my favorite, but I'll feel like I need to read it anyway. Inevitably, someone comes up and says that was just what they needed to hear that day. So, you learn to trust your gut.
For instance, I REALLY want to read my brand new, dripping wet dragon poem tomorrow at the reading...but I won't know until I bring it into the room if it's the right one to read given the crowd dynamic and my fellow readers. That said, I always prepare, prepare, prepare for as many options as I can think of, and then wing it. At this and any reading, all I can hope to appear at the mic is congenial and mustard-stain free (btw, that's what they make cardigans for).