I've been listening to Billy Collins Live: A Performance at the Peter Norton Symphony Space, which is supposed to be an audiobook, but is basically a recording of Billy Collins reading his poems before an audience he terms "relatively enormous". Reading poetry or any literary work in public is never an easy task. It requires a set of skills I don't think many are born with. First thing is reading your audience, feeling the undercurrent to the room. The second is setting expectations. You want people to know what to look forward to with your poetry so they aren't disappointed. Last is eye contact with your audience.
Reading your audience:
You have to know what came before you on stage. If it was a musical act, it takes the audience a while to come down from that. On the plus side, they are open to rhythm and probably a little more relaxed. If you follow another poet, listen to what that poet read. Adjust accordingly. You want to be different enough to not get confused with the previous person. I still have people come up to me in Wal-Mart and say "Hey, you're the Cheese Poem Lady!" One poem about Gorgonzola cheese and I am branded forever in some people's minds. Instant connection.
Remember, your audience can only take so many poems about angst and death before they shut down. If the previous poet was somber and earnest, start with something lighter to change the mood. You can gradually lead into more serious stuff, but only when you've earned the trust of the audience. Your work is distinct, make sure the people listening know they are listening to you. Introduce yourself right up front. Try for some humor. On the days I feel obnoxious I may open with something like this- depending on the audience. "Hi, my name is C.A. Brewer, I'll be your poet tonight. Our special is a lovely filet of Shakespearean sonnet, served cold…"
If I open with humor then the audience rightly expects me to have poems that are lighter in tone. I try and plan out my presentation including the order I read the poems, but sometimes that is all out the window depending on what came before. When I read my more personal poems, based on my growing up Italian, I try and preface the poetry by including my maiden name (Italian) and telling them why I include that name, then lead into how my life did or didn't resemble the Sopranos growing up. Since a majority of the poems have to do with food, I try and reach common ground with the audience by asking "How many of you have ever eaten Italian food? Pizza? Lasagna? Gnocchi?" By the time I get to Gnocchi, they are curious, especially if they have never heard of it. I actually had someone tell me they went out and bought Gorgonzola cheese to try after hearing my poem about it. A ripple effect I never expected.
I find the Billy Collins Audiobook a good study for how to introduce your poems, how to lead into them, and lastly, how to transition from one to the next without saying continually, "Here's one about rutabagas. Here's another about the time I was pelted with rutabagas as a child. Here's one I call Homage to Rutabagas." The audience is looking for a connection to the poet. Make it easy for them. Open up and give them a glimpse of the real you, painful as that might be. You are trying to reach an intimate level where there is the right degree of casualness to your reading, where the audience feels like they are seated at your kitchen table and you are reading just for them.
To go along with the intimacy, you must make eye contact with your audience. This has been the hardest thing for me to learn. I am afraid if I look up and see the number of people out there, I will freeze up. On occasion I have had my voice start quavering. Not a pleasant experience! I soldier on, but to help get over the initial jitters, I found employing steps one and two helped immensely. If you gain the trust of the audience, you can confess to nerves, or a headache, or dyslexia and they will be sympathetic. The quickest way to establish a small degree of intimacy is to look at people. I try to do most of my looking directly at people when I am doing my introduction. At that stage I am still gauging their reactions, ready to adjust my spiel if need be. You can't do that without making some sort of eye contact- unless you are psychic. Since the Amazing Kreskin isn't in my ancestry, I have to do it the hard way.
It helps to find the friendly faces in the audience, the one you know are fans, or at least look sympathetic and open to your situation. Mark their place in the room, because here is my torrid confession. After I start reading, I never really look directly at anyone. I give all the appearance of looking up, making eye contact with people as I read… but I don't. I look at a space about six inches over their heads. It lets individual audience members have the illusion I am looking at them, or the person behind them. I can't multitask when I'm reading. I read off of the paper, a line or two ahead, because I know if I tried to memorize my poems and perform, I would royally screw it up. Having the poem on paper in front of me is my security blanket. With that in front of me I can make eye contact, drop my gaze back to the paper, pick up the next few lines, and move on. Unlike dogs, who can take eye contact as a challenge, people hunger for contact with the object of their interest, even if it's only the Poet du Jour slotted in as a distraction at a conference or dinner. The audience won't remember what you wore (usually) or that your hands shook (sometimes), but they will remember that for a brief instant, when you spoke of poetic things, when a connection to art or artist was offered, they remember that out of all the people in the audience, you looked and spoke directly to them.
The Cheese Poem Lady