Recently, having been to WORD! and Shindig spoken word evenings and attended events as part of Leicester University’s Literary Leicester festival, I’ve been thinking about what makes a successful poetry reading. I’m also preparing for my poetry reading and book launch of “Mimicking a Snowdrop” at Leicester’s Friends (Quakers) Meeting House on Queens Road, LE2 1WP from 3pm on Saturday 13 December.
I’m sharing some thoughts below and welcome comments:
Poetry likes intimacy, but intimacy doesn’t necessarily mean a small venue. A cabaret-style arrangement where the audience sit around tables rather than in the regimental lines of a theatre or lecture hall creates a more relaxed feel. Letting the audience know how the event is structured helps create a welcoming feel.
The audience need to see the poet too, so a poet who can stand or can use a stage will command more attention than someone who sits behind a table.
Noisy, attention grabbing garb can be just as distracting as a poet who’s clearly not comfortable in the clothes they’re in. Some clothing can rustle or squeak and some jewellery can provide distracting reflections. None of this is a problem if the poems are excellent but it does make the audience work harder to hear them.
A poet who’s turned up with a set list and has easy access to poems in the order they are being read helps the audience relax. A poet who is forever flicking through a file of papers, asking themselves ‘what shall I read next?’ or constantly pausing whilst scrolling through a tablet screen will lose the audience’s attention.
Introductions to Poems
Introductions are important: they’re an opportunity to give the audience a few clues towards what a poem they’re about to hear for the first time is about. But introductions should be proportionate to the reading. The introduction of one poem should not be longer than the poem. The introduction of a body of work in a reading lasting half an hour may be longer, particularly if the body of work is arranged around a theme.
Any introductions that effectively suggest the poet would rather be elsewhere and not doing this should not be voiced. The audience doesn’t want to know that the poet is feeling nervous, or that the poet isn’t sure how the poem’s going to sound or that the poet’s not sure if they’ll remember the whole thing (if reading from memory). Projecting nerves onto the audience tends to make the audience nervous and they won’t be focused on the poet’s reading.
It’s a good idea to only mention the title when about to read the poem. Announcing the title, rattling off an introduction and then reading the poem gives the impression the introduction is part of the poem.
Reading the Poems
Being able to hear the poet is obviously good. But that doesn’t mean the poet shouting. It means the poet being able to speak clearly and without any face coverings. Even a stage whisper can be heard if projected correctly.
This is where the unrehearsed come unstuck. Poets who’ve read their poems aloud and are fully aware of rhythmic structures and sound patterns have greater success.
The poet who shuffles awkwardly on stage, rustles through papers, holds their printed poems up in front of their face while reading and generally behaves as if the audience isn’t there, will find the audience absent themselves through distractions.
Looking at the audience may not be easy – some venues use spotlights so the audience is in darkness, some poets fear they’ll spot the awkward heckler at table three and get discouraged – but finding a fixed point to look out at, particularly when introducing the poem, gives the audience the impression they are acknowledged.
Don’t tell the audience how to behave. There is a trend at spoken word events for the audience to applaud every poem, at other events the audience may wait until the end of the reading. If you’ve based your selected poems around a theme or they are a sequence and you don’t want applause to break the flow, say “I would prefer….” with an explanation not “Don’t.” No one likes a dictator.
Whether the poet’s reading one poem or thirty, the audience need a signal the reading’s over. A simple “Thank you” is always good. Keep the thanks in proportion: if you’ve been reading for half an hour or are the guest/featured poet then thanking the organisers and or venue is a courtesy but leave thanks for your friends, family, pets, primary school teacher, trusted readers, etc for the acknowledgements page in your latest collection.
Naturally readings are a good opportunity to promote forthcoming events or a latest publication, but keep it in proportion and check with the organiser first. No one’s going to mind a poet mentioning their next reading or naming the current/forthcoming collection. But if you’re reading one poem in an open mic slot, don’t overstay your welcome and reduce time available for other poets by launching into a lengthy list of tour dates, publications and where they can be purchased from.
By Emma Lee