A comment left on an earlier blog article asked about “addressing a poetry reading, the articulation, accessibility and where to stand as in the steps for how to engage with your notebooks or computer or paperfiles” so I’ve tried to cover these points here. (TL;DR: scroll to end)
Addressing a Poetry Reading
Open Mic Spots
Some organisers introduce each poet in turn, some organisers expect the poets who know who they follow. There will be a time or poem limit so keep introductions short. Do mention your name either before you read or at the end of your slot. Don’t be tempted to promote you latest book or CD or next poetry reading unless you have agreed this with the organiser beforehand. Note, the time limit includes introductions, promotional plugs and your poems so don’t spend the five minute slot reading poems and then take over the next two slots plugging your latest pamphlet. You’ve just knocked two poets off the bill and won’t be invited back.
Reading with other poets
Check beforehand how the reading will be organised. Will someone introduce each poet in turn, or will all poets be introduced at the beginning of the evening or one poet introduce the next? If you have a say in how you are introduced, keep it brief. It makes life easier for the organiser and the audience aren’t there to listen to the organiser but the poets. It also gives you more opportunity to introduce yourself and make it more relevant to the poems you are reading.
Think about whether you are happy to introduce yourself or whether you’d prefer someone else to. If your event is being organised by someone else, e.g. you are reading at a hosted night, the organisers generally have someone who will welcome the audience before the event is underway and introducing the poet briefly can be done as part of that. If your publisher is present, they may be happy to introduce you and remind the audience there is a bookstall.
If you are introducing yourself, remember the audience are there to hear your poems. You don’t need to run through your entire publishing career or list every reading you’ve ever done. Focus on a few key points and move on to the poems.
Introducing the poems
Your audience don’t need to know you’re reading a sonnet or that you’ve invented a complex rhyme scheme. Generally they’re not reading poems from the page as you read them. They don’t need to know when you wrote the poem or how long it took you either. Introduce a theme, “This one’s about…” or mention the location if it offers your audience insight into your poem and keep it short, preferrably shorter than the poem.
If you can, avoid mentioning the title of your poem before or during your introduction and only read the title as you are about to read the poem. There’s a risk that your audience may assume your introduction is part of your poem if you do this.
Pause slightly at the end of each poem. Some audiences like to applaud each poem, other audiences wait until the end of a reading. A pause helps indicate to the audience you’ve reached the end of your poem and gives them chance to absorb it before you move onto the next poem.
Engaging your Audience
Before you introduce yourself or your first poem, look at your audience. Even if you’re not feeling it, try to appear relaxed. Audiences generally mirror the performer, so if you look tense and nervous, your audience may start feeling nervous. If you’re concerned someone may put you off reading, focus on a point located within the audience.
Check you have your audience’s attention before you begin. That might mean waiting for a conversation to finish or attracting their attention (“Hello!” usually works).
Once you have your audience’s attention, ask for mobile phones to be turned off or to silent and let them know the format and approximate timings for your reading, e.g. “I’m going to read for around half an hour, there will be a twenty minute interval, and then a question and answer session or further reading.” Then your audience know what to expect and when their next comfort break is. If you do have an interval, remind your audience there is more to come in the second half – even if you say so at the beginning, some audience members may leave during the interval thinking the event has finished.
If you’ve brought books to read or arranged with a publisher/bookshop to have a stall, mention it in your introduction and just before the interval if you’ve having an interval.
You may not be able to look at your audience whilst reading your poems, but do remember to look at them while you’re introducing the next poem or at the pause at the end of a poem.
If there is a disruption, e.g. a late-comer or someone decides they have to get up and open a window, stop reading and let the late-comer find a seat, the window-opener open their window before continuing.
If there is a heckler, ask them to save their comments until the end/the interval. If they are persistent, ask them to leave. Don’t be afraid to ask for support from the organiser or the rest of the audience. It is not just your reading that the disrupter is interrupting, but also the audience’s ability to listen to and enjoy your reading. Don’t let the fear of hecklers put you off reading. Audiences come to readings to hear you read and want you to succeed in your reading.
Accessibility and Where to stand (or sit)
Venue accessibility is not your issue unless you are also the event organiser so I’m not going to cover it here.
Some venues will have an obvious stage area. If the stage is raised area and not accessible to you, use an area in front of the stage because the audience will expecting to look in the direction of the stage.
In less formal settings, pick a spot where all the audience can see you and no audience member is behind you. Some theatres or conference venues organise the audience in a horse-shoe shape around a performance area. In this case, mentally draw a line between the two open ends of the shape and stand along that line. If you try to stand in the middle, some audience members will be behind you and won’t hear you.
If pillars or bookshelves block an audience’s view, you may to ask some members of the audience to move.
If you use a table or lectern, ensure the top level is below your mouth otherwise your voice will hit the table or lectern and bounce back to you rather than out to your audience. This is particularly important if you sit down to read.
If there is a microphone, adjust it to suit you, even if you are only reading one poem. There will be an impact on your ability to read if you’re cramped over or stretching up to reach the microphone.
If there is no microphone, pick a spot on the back wall or at the back of the venue and project your voice to reach it. If there’s opportunity, practice projecting your voice before the audience arrive so you know how loud you need to be.
Where possible, ensure your mouth can be seen. You won’t know if some of the audience need to lip read and if the audience can see your mouth, they can generally hear you.
Engaging with Notebooks, Computer or Paper Files
Reading from a printed page or electronic device is a matter of preference and there’s no right or wrong. What’s key is rehearsing with your preferred set up and ensuring that you can move smoothly from poem to poem. Ask the organiser in advance if they provide any stand or lectern if you want or need somewhere to put papers or a device whilst reading. It is possible to get portable lecterns or use a music stand that you can bring yourself if that benefits you and the venue doesn’t provide one.
If reading from memory, it helps to put your audience at ease if you also have a printed or electronic copy of what you are reading, even if these are put on a table, lectern or stand near you.
If using printed pages, make sure the font is large enough for you to read easily and that the font is printed in a sufficient contrast for you to read in a dimly-lit venue – black on white is fine but if you prefer to read from a coloured background, check the contrast with the text colour.
If you’re reading from a bound book, use bookmarks or sticky notes to easily find the poems you want to read. You can’t look up at an audience, read a table of contents and flick through a book to the right page at the same time.
If reading from loose printed pages, use a pin or treasury tag to keep the pages together and practice reading with them beforehand so you know you can turn to the next poem without dropping all the pages on the floor. Fan through your papers before the reading so there’s less chance of pages sticking together.
If you use wallets or files to keep loose pages together, choose ones with a matt surface so you’re not struggling with glare from overhead lamps on a gloss cover.
Sticky notes are great for making bullet points on to use as prompts for introducing poems.
If using a phone, tablet or computer, ensure the font is large enough, the screen is sufficiently backlit and you can scroll through as you read. Ensure any device is fully charged and think about having a back-up in case of electronic failures on the night.
- Try to read at a slightly slower pace than you would normally.
- If you rehearse beforehand, you’ll be practised at pacing your reading to fit the time allocated and will gain a feel for how long it takes to read each poem.
- Don’t try to act out your poems, the words of your poems will speak for themselves.
Let your tone rise and fall as it would in a general conversation with a friend or neighbour. Don’t try to affect a voice that’s not natural to you.
- Now is not the time to try and lose an accent in favour of received pronunciation or develop Poetic Voice (where a poet reads slowly, enunciates each word, favours a monotone and dramatic pauses (unless the poem actually calls for a dramatic pause) and the result is the reading feels unnatural and uncomfortable for the listeners).
Focus on what you can control:
- Your choice of poems, whether you read from pages, books or an electronic device (check it’s fully charged beforehand). Rehearse so you can read fluently without awkward pauses while you look for the next poem or juggle between a notebook and book.
- Reduce barriers between you and the audience – I often stand in front of lecterns and tables because I’m not tall – and don’t cover your mouth when you read.
- Look at your audience periodically to remind them you know they’re there and help them engage.
- When it comes to introductions, less is more.
- Try to appear relaxed and comfortable, even if you’re not, because your audience will generally mirror you.
- Have a plan to deal with your equipment or memory failure (if reading from memory) but don’t stress about the venue’s equipment failures (e.g. microphone not working). You’re not responsible for the latter. If you can, get to the venue early so you can check what equipment’s provided and whether there are any potential problems such as lighting being too dim.
- Remember to sell books, pamphlets etc if you’ve brought them to sell.