Once the questionnaires and the releases begin to come back from the winning poets I start to create a notebook for our MC. The notebook is in the order the poets read the evening of Poets’ Night Out and includes the questionnaire, their poem and for the poets who read after the intermission the name of the prize they have won. When I have this all put together it is the complete program in notebook form.
Our MC, uses the information the poets put on their questionnaire to create an individual introduction for each poet as they come up to read. I try to get the notebook to him at least 5-7 days before the program.
The Poets’ Table
All of the poets are asked to arrive at 6:45 the night of PNO and to stop at the Poets’ Table; the program begins at 7:00. I have name tags, a hardcover blank book and a chapbook of all winning poems for each poet. The blank book is a gift to all 25 poets from the Friends of the Library. In order to keep the program up to date and running smoothly I put the name tags in alphabetical order on top of the books. That way they are easy to find and I know exactly which poets have not arrived and by 7:00 we update our program notebook accordingly. If the absent poet is reading during the first half I have the audience mark them off the ballot and if they are on in the second half we wait until the intermission to update the second half.
Setting up for the Audience
Poets’ Night Out is held in the Traverse City Opera House. It is a historic facility that holds several hundred people on the ground floor and several hundred more in the balcony. We have between 150 and 200 people attend PNO. We set up 15 large round tables with 8 chairs each and then put all the rest of the chairs along the sides and across the back. We put a vanilla candle in a candle holder on each table. We light the candles about 6:00 so the room has a faint vanilla smell. Before the program starts we put pens and ballots on the tables. The audience receives programs when they pay their admission. We have a local musician who begins playing guitar at 6:30 and then plays again at the intermission.
We have refreshments set up at two tables outside the large room where the program is held. Refreshments are served before the program and during the intermission. We have drinks requiring hot water: tea and hot chocolate, ice water and apple cider. We provide four kinds of cookies and whatever treats are leftover from the afternoon workshop, M+Ms, nuts and chex mix. You really need to have 2 people with a little Martha Stewart know how to arrange and setup the food.
Setting up for the Poets
We have our podium on the floor not up on the stage. Poets, many who are first time readers, are often very nervous so we try to make our set up kinder and less intimidating. Round tables are much less frightening to face than theater seating. The lighting is as dark as we can make it and still film a video of the evening. Our MC’s personal introduction of each poet also helps them feel more at ease.
Every year I welcome the audience, giving a brief history of Poets’ Night Out and then instructing the audience on filling out the ballots. Two poets are to be chosen, it can be any two, and for whatever reason the audience member chooses. We suggest the poets bring lots of family members to vote for them during the audience prize. We have made the audience into jurors for the first half of the evening and it has proven to be a valuable activity.
Once the poets begin to read we close the doors to the large room and post signs at the doors that say, “Please Enter during applause only.” This is something we learned over time, people need to wait until each poet finishes, otherwise the reading can be completely interrupted. We always have someone near the doors during the program so the signs are respected. As much as Poets’ Night Out is a celebration of the spoken word it is also an event that shows great respect to the poets who come and share their writing with us. We honor them all as winners.
The First Half of the Program
After the welcome I introduce our MC, by reading a small bio he has written about his life and writing. Then he reads his own poetry for five minutes. After he finishes his reading he introduces each poet with the introduction he created. After everyone reads, there are usually 12 poets, I ask the audience to send up the ballots with one person from each table and deposit them in a small box marked ballots. Then I announce a twenty minute intermission and 6 people go off to count the ballots. I make 3 large master ballots from the audience ballots, one person reads the two names chosen on the ballots and the other makes hash marks on the master ballot. The votes on all three master ballots are added up and the top two vote getters are the audience prize winners. One year we had a tie for second place so we split the fifty dollars and gave a top prize and two second place prizes of $25.00 each. You need to have cash for the two audience prizes in case there are ties.
During the intermission we always have a volunteer at the now empty poets’ table selling chapbooks for $5.00 each. We also sell them as the audience is leaving and announce before the end of the evening that chapbooks will be sold at the library store and at the front desk. The chapbooks make great gifts for friends and family members of the winning poets.
The Second Half of the Program
The poets reading in the second half of the program are all winners selected by the jurors. We begin by having our MC introduce the new juror for this year, who reads five minutes of his/her poetry. Then Paul introduces our “every year” juror and she reads five minutes of her poetry. We announce the winner of each prize and the poets come up to read, we hand them the envelope with the check as the poet finishes reading. Once all of the prizes have been awarded I announce the two winners of the audience prizes.
Our MC and I often stand at the podium together and congratulate all of the winners again. We announce the date of our Kick-off to Poetry Month in April and invite everyone to attend. We thank our sponsors and our volunteers. We have learned not to rush the end of the evening, because together we have experienced something large and lovely. Just for a few minutes we all savor the experience before everyone heads back out into the world.
We have some amazing volunteers. After the intermission is over they carry the food, drinks and decorations out to the car. We blow out the candles, pack up the ballots and programs, box up the unsold chapbooks and our steering committee and spouses go to a restaurant for a snack and talk about how the evening went.
The Wrap Up Meeting
Most years we have a meeting within a week after the event to discuss what went well and what we could do better. We are always looking for ways to make things work smoother or more efficiently.