Submitting and Performing Poems: Presentation Matters

Whether you are about to read some of your writing to an audience or you’re about to send a batch of poems off to an editor, how you present your work could be the difference between acceptance and rejection. In theory, a good poem will transcend being mumbled in performance or scrawled on a scruffy piece of paper, but, in practice, you’re putting a barrier between your audience and your poem and why would the audience, who knows there’s another performer, the editor who knows there are plenty more submissions to read through, make the effort to appreciate your poems?

Presentation for Performance

  • Speak Clearly – a quiet voice or a strong accent isn’t a barrier, mumbling and covering your mouth (whether with a hand or scarf or the page/screen you’re reading from) are.
  • You don’t have to stand still but bear in mind too many gestures or movement will be a distraction: you are a narrator rather than an actor.
  • Rehearse and pace your reading so you’re not tempted to rattle through your poems or cram in more poems than sensibly fit.
  • Engage your audience – look up occasionally and acknowledge their presence.
  • Don’t become a lecturer – lectures are boring, engage your audience and acknowledge their presence.
  • Rehearse and plan your introductions but prepare to be flexible. The person introducing you may mention some things you’d planned to say or another reader may already have explained a topic you’d written about.
  • If you mess up a line, take a deep breath and either carry on or read the line again and continue as if the mistake hadn’t occurred. You might be cringing inside, but the audience want to see you recover (unless you’ve failed to engage them, mumbled through your first poems, distracted them by randomly waving your arms around and lost their interest).

Presentation for Page

  • Use a standard font in a standard size – you may want a gothic font for your Edgar Allan Poe pastiche but it’s far better to suggest this with a gothic initial letter and the rest in a legible font
  • Don’t include extensive notes about how your poems should be presented – magazines and publishers generally have a house style that their readers are familiar with. If you’re publishing online and your poem uses a non-standard format or is a concrete poem, save your poem as an image (eg as a .jpg file) and treat it as a picture rather than text.
  • Don’t include an explanation of your poem or a lengthy glossary of notes – your poems should be able to stand without supporting material.
  • Images, templates with elaborately designed borders in the margins and watermarks will distract from the page and make it harder to read. If you are using coloured paper or a coloured background (eg because you’re self-publishing or publishing online) think carefully about how your font colour works with your background. Some colour schemes render the font invisible.
  • Double check or typos and grammar errors or get someone else to proof-read for you. Ambiguities can hold a reader up. Some errors can completely change the meaning of your poem.
  • If submitting to an editor, follow their submission guidelines or, if there aren’t any guidelines, use the standard format: covering letter, poem on a separate page with name, email and address on each sheet (in case they get separated) and, if required, a stamped, self-addressed envelope for a reply. If submitting by email, add the email to your address book so replies don’t end up in your junk or spam folders.

Competition is tough. Every live literature/spoken word event isn’t just competing against other events (theatre, music, film), but also against TV, games and social media, particularly when the weather’s lousy. If you want to be able to read again or invited to do other readings, you need a reputation for being reliable, professional and able to engage and audience. Poetry publishers are overwhelmed with submissions. If yours turns up on crumpled, coffee-stained paper without a covering letter or you’ve send a email with an over-elaborate handwriting style font laden with watermarked swirls, you’ve handed the editor reasons to reject your poems. Presentation matters.


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