Anyone who regularly attends poetry readings and open mic nights will have met Poet A who shuffles on stage, fails to look at the audience and mumbles into the mic or reads as if the audience is less than an arm’s length away. Equally irritating is Poet B who yells like a stereotyped sergeant major who leaves listeners feel as if they’ve been flattened by a steam roller.
There is a happy medium and finding that medium where poets can read their poems sufficiently loudly for the audience to hear without yelling at them. Yelling damages vocal chords. The aim is to project your voice without damaging it.
If you have a microphone, you don’t need to project your voice beyond normal conversation. You do, however, need to check that the microphone is at the right height for you so you can speak into it without crouching or without stretching or tilting your mouth upwards. Pay attention to the people who’ve read before you or to the compere: do they get very close to the microphone or maintain a book’s length’s distance? Copy them. When the microphone’s at a comfortable height, read slightly slower than normal (remember the audience may not be familiar with your poems and gabbling through them isn’t going to sell them). It’s worth taking those extra few seconds to adjust the microphone otherwise you won’t be projecting into the microphone but the stand or the air above it and it won’t transmit your words to the audience.
If you don’t have a microphone, you need to project your voice. It’s true that an engaged audience will overcome the struggle to hear you, but you need to engage them first which won’t happen if you can’t be heard. Yelling at your audience is the equivalent of using only capital letters on social media. If your voice sounds flat with a higher-than-normal pitch, you’re yelling. Projection gives your voice a depth which carries it over the distance of the room.
To project your voice, you need to be able to breathe. If you can stand, do so, but even sitting, avoid slouching and ensure you can fill your lungs when you breathe in. Focus on someone in the back row and visualise your voice reaching them. Your voice will sound loud and you will retain enough control to relax into reading your poem because you won’t be expanding the effort you need if you yell.
When I did my very first poetry reading, I had the advance of knowing how big the room was. Part of my preparation involved placing a recording device at a distance slightly longer than the room. I then read and played back my reading so I knew, whatever else went wrong on that night, the audience not being able to hear me wasn’t going to be one of them.
If you think that sounds too much like hard work, don’t invite me to one of your readings. If you don’t respect your audience enough to rehearse and plan ahead, you won’t earn their respect on the night.
A Poetry of Elephants is now available from: https://poetryofelephants.wordpress.com/. This is a crowdfunded anthology so 100% of the sales will go to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world and one of the pioneering conservation organisations for wildlife and habitat protection in East Africa.
A Poetry of Elephants is full of poems that celebrate elephants, some grieving at the prospect of extinction but others showing how their image occupies our everyday life and speech. We hope that it may in some small way help to raise awareness and funds for those who work tirelessly to save these beautiful animals for future generations.
It includes my poem “Mary’s Elephant.” Mary Queen of Scots embroidered an elephant whilst detained, pending execution for treason so her cousin Elizabeth I could further secure her claim to England’s throne. The embroidery is held in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
The launch of Do Something, an anthology to raise funds for Hope Not Hate, at Firebug, Millstone Lane, Leicester LE1 5JN from 3pm on Saturday 3 December. There will be readings from the anthology and a panel discussion. Cake was also mentioned! More details: https://www.facebook.com/events/1678502645705533/permalink/1684711035084694/